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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Loaded Oil Tanker Sinks Off Spain

APThe stricken Prestige oil tanker sinking into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain and Portugal after splitting in two Tuesday.
MADRID, Spain -- A tanker carrying thousands of tons of fuel oil split in two and sank in the Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday, threatening an environmental disaster off the northwestern coast of Spain and Portugal.

The lost oil is nearly twice the amount of the 1989 Exxon Valdez crude oil spill off Alaska.

There was a large slick, but most of the oil containers apparently sank intact when the Bahamas-flagged Prestige -- originally carrying 77,000 metric tons -- vanished by midday, said Lars Walder, a spokesman for the Dutch salvage company SMIT.

No one was injured as the crew had been evacuated earlier.

Photos and television images Tuesday morning showed the front and back parts of the tanker slightly upended and separated by clear blue water. The rear sank first, then the bow.

"We can say goodbye to the ship and its cargo," Walder said, adding that if the tanks fall the 3,600 meters to the ocean floor, that might moderate the environmental damage.

Nevertheless, sooner or later the oil would seep out, he said.

"We hope that the sunken part does not spill its fuel. But still it's a time bomb at the bottom of the sea," said Maria Jose Caballero who heads the coastal protection project for Greenpeace.

"The vessel cracked in the hull because it was very old. There's nothing to make us believe it won't finally burst and leak all its oil," she said. "It's insoluble, viscous and sticky, which makes it difficult for the clean-up operations."

The vessel sprang a leak during a storm last Wednesday and was towed by tugboats some 244 kilometers off Spain's Atlantic coast.

That relatively small slick of about 3,000 tons tarred beaches up and down about 200 kilometers of Spain's northwest coast. Authorities made the area off limits to fishing, leaving hundreds out of work.

Soldiers and volunteers on Tuesday were still cleaning up the beaches between Cape Finisterre north to the city of La Coruna.

Dozens of beaches and coves along the coast were coated in thick oil while up to 150 animals, mostly seabirds, were being treated.

"We've seen many dead fish and birds and many others in agony when we rescue them," Ezequiel Navio, from the World Wildlife Fund's Spanish branch ADENA.

The SMIT salvage company estimated that the tanker may have spilled up to 13 percent of its cargo so far.

Walder said there were dozens of tankers lying on the ocean floor around the world and that it was possible to suction off the oil, but this was rarely done because of the costs.

A spokesman for ship manager Universe Maritime Ltd. who did not want to be identified, complained that the ship's location far off shore had exposed it to storms. The Spanish government had ordered the ship far from land to limit contamination.

The vessel had sustained a 9-meter to 15-meter crack in the hull below the waterline that made it unable to proceed under its own power while salvagers sought a port to do repairs or transfer the oil to another vessel.

Portuguese authorities said winds and tides were expected to keep the oil slick left by the sunken vessel, estimated to be 36 kilometers long and 500 meters wide, from reaching its coast at least until Thursday.

Both Portugal and Spain had barred the salvagers from towing the ship to any of their ports to protect their fishing and tourism industries.

The tanker's Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, was jailed on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment.

The ship, owned by the Liberian-registered company Mare Shipping Incorporated, was bound for Singapore when the storm hit. Spanish authorities asserted the Prestige hadn't been inspected since 1999, despite regular stops in the British colony of Gibraltar -- a charge that Britain denied.

Spain and the European Union last week said action could be taken against Britain over the boat.

The ship's management company said this was the first time such problems had occurred with the vessel and that it was last inspected in May.

Spain's northwest coast has suffered several tanker accidents in recent years. The worst was in 1992, when the Greek tanker Aegean Sea lost 81.7 million liters of crude oil when it ran aground near La Coruna.