Mass protest as new wave of oil hits Spain
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain - Tens of thousands of angry demonstrators packed Galicia\'s capital on the weekend to protest at the government\'s handling of a tanker disaster as a new wave of fuel oil hit Spanish beaches.
The streets of Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage centre in northwestern Spain, were thronged with marchers upset by the destruction wrought on the region\'s environment and fisheries by a huge oil spill from the sunken tanker Prestige.
Organisers of the march, held under the slogan \"Never Again\", estimated that up to 200,000 people marched through driving rain under a sea of umbrellas. There was no official estimate but one local police officer agreed with that figure.
Marcher Juan Raimundez, his clothes smeared with oil from the cleanup, accused authorities of playing down the disaster. \"You can\'t lie and take the situation so lightly... Those of us who\'ve been to clean up have no doubt it\'s a catastrophe.\"
Demonstrators, criticising the authorities\' response to the spill as slow and inadequate, called for the Spanish and Galician regional governments to resign.
Seventy miles (110 km) away on Galicia\'s storm-driven \"Coast of Death\", small patches of a huge oil slick released when the 26-year-old Prestige broke up and sank 12 days ago in deep Atlantic waters began washing up on beaches.
The fishing village of Muxia on Spain\'s northwestern corner, repeatedly cleaned only to be soaked again with thick, foul-smelling fuel oil, was hit again.
For the first time, oil washed up on about 10 beaches near Valdovino, 40 kms northeast of La Coruna in northern Galicia, officials said.
The spread of the slick led Galician officials to extend a ban on gathering shellfish - which already covered 400 kms of coast - to the bays of Ferrol and Cedeira in northern Galicia.
A larger slick containing most of the estimated 11,000 tonnes of fuel oil spilled when the Prestige sank was now about 19 miles (35 km) off the Spanish coast, slightly further away than on Saturday, Environment Minister Jaume Matas said.
PREPARED FOR THE WORST
But stormy weather, with driving rain and shifting winds and currents, made it difficult to predict where the slick would end up. \"You have to be prepared for the worst,\" Matas said.
Ominously, Monday\'s weather forecast predicted waves of up to five metres and strong winds from the northwest, which could push the main oil slick towards the rich Rias Baixas shellfish grounds in southern Galicia, so far spared the onslaught.
Residents of that area were gloomy. Manuel Iglesias, a fisherman in the village of O Grove, said inflatable barriers intended to keep out the slick had broken and he urged the government to supply stronger barriers. \"People are desperate. There\'s nothing you can do,\" he said.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar announced the Navy had expelled a single-hulled Maltese oil tanker from Spanish waters on Saturday - the first time it has put into effect a new get-tough policy that Spain and France agreed on last week.
The French mini-submarine Nautile, which will be sent on a deep-sea mission to check if the Prestige\'s tanks are still leaking, arrived in the Galician port of Vigo on the weekend.
Bad weather hampered the work of eight cleanup ships, from around Europe, which have so far scooped up 5,500 tonnes of fuel oil from the sea.
The slick close to Spain\'s shores was bigger than the 5,000 tonnes of fuel oil spilled when the Prestige, carrying 77,000 tonnes of oil, was holed off the Galician coast on November 13. It was towed out to sea for nearly a week before sinking.
The original spill caused untold damage to Galicia\'s renowned fisheries, shellfish and barnacles, a culinary delicacy. Thousands of fishermen have been thrown out of work.
Some 1,400 white-suited workers, wearing face masks to avoid inhaling fumes, scraped up oil from scores of beaches on the weekend.
Wildlife group SEO/BirdLife estimated that up to 15,000 birds may have been killed or severely affected by the slick.
It said the disaster may mean the extinction of Spain colonies of the protected guillemot. Eighteen of the birds have been found dead and the Spanish population of the birds is estimated at only 11 pairs, it said. (Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Marta Calleja in Madrid, Tomasz Janowski and George Georgiopoulos in Corfu).
Story by Emma Ross-Thomas
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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