Concern oil slicks may hit France

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- French authorities reported Sunday that oil slicks from the wrecked tanker Prestige were just 12 miles from the southwestern Basque coast, heightening concerns over a possible ecological disaster.

French Environment and Defense ministers toured the region Sunday morning, talking with fisherman and local officials, who have launched a preventative action plan.


Helicopters are regularly being sent aloft to assess the oil's slow drift eastward from Spanish waters.

Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot told local reporters the first traces of oil might hit the Basque coastline Tuesday.

French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin was expected to hold a meeting Sunday night to discuss ways to prevent a reenactment of a similar spill, which ravaged the coasts of Brittany just three years ago.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of volunteers continued to clean up the blackened coast of Galicia, Spain, where the spill devastated the local fishing economy.

Experts are uncertain exactly how much oil has seeped from the single-hulled Prestige since it broke in two and sank on Nov. 19. The slicks have spread in all directions and now threaten the shores of Portugal as well as France.


A French submarine dispatched this week found oil still eking from the sunken tanker. Experts estimate some 40,000 to 60,000 tons of the Prestige's original 77,000-ton load remains inside the vessel.

The government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has likened the Prestige spill to a "Spanish Chernobyl," referring to the nuclear reactor disaster in the former Soviet Union.

In France, the looming slicks are a glum reminder of the 1999 spill from the tanker Erika, which wreaked havoc on Brittany's environment and economy and became a political scandal following reports that the tanker, operated by TotalFinaElf, had failed to meet international safety standards.

The European Union has since enacted measures to ban single-hulled tankers by 2015. But on Friday, European transportation ministers stepped up the pace, adopting a measure to prevent such tankers from accessing European Union ports.

European heads of state meeting this week in Copenhagen are expected to announce additional measures against "garbage ships" such as the Prestige and the Erika following a push by the French, Portuguese and Spanish governments.

Leaders from all three countries recently banned single-hulled tankers from their waters.

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