Minister blames salvage firm for tanker spill


Amid increasing criticism over the Spanish government's handling of the Prestige disaster, Environment Minister Mr Jaume Matas blamed a Dutch salvage company for the spillage of millions of gallons of toxic fuel oil from the sunken tanker last week, a newspaper reported today.

Questioned about the salvage company SMIT's criticism of Spain for having forced it to tow the stricken Prestige out to sea, instead of providing a shelter for it to be repaired, Matas told the daily La Razon: "It's a disgrace that we should have to provide explanations for these people."

"They are the ones who provoked the spill. The government has done everything possible to avert a greater damage and to solve the problem."

Mr Matas did not, however, give details as to how the company may have caused the spillage. SMIT dismissed the allegations.

"We completely reject the charges," spokesman Mr Lars Walder said. "We wanted a place to repair the vessel and Spain made us go out to sea with a ship that was sinking and leaking oil. That was the worst of all possible solutions."

SMIT, which took charge of the Prestige after it nearly ran aground on November 13th, repeatedly claimed that it needed a sheltering port or bay to repair the ship or to transfer its near 77,000-ton (20 million gallons) fuel oil cargo onto another vessel.

It argued that the Spanish government's decision to force the 26-year-old, single-hulled vessel out to sea would only worsen the situation.

"These decisions are always questionable," Mr Matas told La Razon. "But the government took them after serious and rigorous meditation and under the technical and scientific advice of those that know."

With a large hole in its side plating and storms raging across the north-western Spanish coast, the Bahamas-flagged vessel was towed out to sea. It finally snapped in two and sank last Tuesday, taking most of its fuel oil to the ocean floor.

SMIT has not been alone in its criticism of Spain. "If, on the contrary, the Prestige had been towed in and run up onto a beach, so that most of its fuel could have been pumped out ... the damage would have been minimised without a doubt," Mr Javier de Mendoza, Organic Chemistry Professor at Madrid's Autonomous University, wrote in a letter to the leading daily El Paistoday.