Oil Cleanup Workers Battle Rough Seas in France, Turkey

BREST, France, January 3, 2000 (ENS) - The robot Abyssub 5000, monitoring the wreckage of the oil tanker Erika, has jammed and has stopped relaying images. Erika spilled 12,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean off France's Brittany coast when she broke up in stormy seas December 12.

The robot had been operating for 12 hours before it stopped working Saturday. A second robot was to have been launched today, but rough weather and 10 foot waves prevented the launch.


Brittany coast near the Erika oil spill (Photo courtesy WWF)
The activity is centered on a spot about 70 kilometres (44 miles) south of the Breton coast where the two parts of the tanker are lying at a depth of 120 metres (390 feet). The wreck still contains about 20,000 tons of oil.

Officials are still hoping to use the robot's pictures to determine how to remove the tanker's remaining oil cargo.

The leaked oil has contaminated about ten miles of the French coast and the estuary of the Loire River to the south.

TotalFina, the oil company which had chartered oil tanker, has offered US$6 million to aid the cleanup efforts.


A seabird is caught by oil from the Erika on Valentin Beach, Batz-sur-mer, Loire-Atlantique. Birds like this were taken by Greenpeace to the TotalFina office near Paris December 27. (Photo (c) Greenpeace/Isabelle Rouvillios)
Not only have an estimated 18,000 birds died since the spill, but also the endangered Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) which live and breed on the island of Belle L'il, are now in danger. Some have died already, while others have been sent to specialised centres in Brest, where they are being cleaned and fed until they can be released again.

Environmental specialists and volunteers continue to gather and remove the patches of thick black residue from the beaches. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which has volunteers working around the clock with night patrols saving many birds, says that fresh oil is washing up on beaches recently cleaned.

About 2,000 people have been mobilized for the efforts, including 200 soldiers. Hundreds more are on standby to help with the cleanup operation. It is expected that around 500 schoolchildren from across the country will join the cleanup today. Some local teams are lining the French coasts with barriers and installed floating blockades in coastal water. Workers are also unloading such as wheelbarrows and shovels from storage facilities along the coast.

French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany promised aid for fishermen and shellfish farmers affected by the spill. Many observers fear that the mollusk and shellfish populations are ruined.

Meanwhile, France's Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet, has taken renewed criticism for underestimating the gravity of the oil spill. She said in December that it was not an ecological disaster.


Turkish oil spill cleanup worker displays oily hands. (Photo courtesy Turkish Maritime Pilots Association)
The World Wide Fund for Nature in the UK is calling upon Europe's leaders to take urgent action to prevent further devastation of Europe's coastline.

The conservation group has been lobbying the International Maritime Organisation and national governments to undertake a detailed risk assessment of the Western European and Mediterranean seaboards following a series of major oil spills which have damaged coastlines in the UK, France and Spain over the past 30 years.

Francis Sullivan, Director of Conservation for WWF-UK said, "Over the last 30 years the European coastline has experienced six of the world's major oil spills. This includes the Sea Empress and the Braer off British shores in the last decade. These are disasters that affect the environment and local communities and more must be done by national governments within the International Maritime Organisation framework to prevent them from occurring."


Map showing location of Volgoneft 248 wreck (Map courtesy Turkish Maritime Pilots Association)
The call for action follows the Erika oil spill and another large oil spill from the Russian tanker Volgoneft 248 which ran aground near Turkey, on December 29. More than 800 tons of fuel oil were spilled into the Sea of Marmara.

The 25-year old river type vessel had 4,300 tons of fuel oil cargo on board, according to the Turkish Maritime Pilots Association.

Salvage and rescue teams are working to remove the sticky oil from a six mile stretch of coast, but a heavy storm is preventing a full capacity operation.

The Volgoneft 248 is owned by Moscow based company Transpetro-Volga. A spokesman for the owner says that the vessel was on charter to Bulgarian interests and was en route from Bourgas, a resort town in the southern part of the Bulgarian Black Sea Riviera.

Russia's main classification society claimed that the ship is officially limited to sailing between March and November in wave heights less than 2.5 metres (8 feet). Experts speculate that the old river vessel was not strong enough to withstand the turbulent seas.

Ramazan Mirzaoglu, the Turkish State Minister responsible for maritime operations, said a comprehensive legal enquiry has been initiated into the incident. The permits held by the vessel and allegations that the Volgoneft 248 was smuggling fuel oil to be illegally supplied to other vessels will be included in the scope of investigations, Mirzaoglu said.