Greek isle under threat from trapped cruise ship fuel

ATHENS (Reuters) - Hundreds of tonnes of oil trapped in the tanks of a sunken cruise ship near the Greek island of Santorini must be pumped out immediately to avert an environmental disaster, Greenpeace said on Tuesday.

The listing Greek-flagged cruise ship Sea Diamond, carrying nearly 1,200 passengers and some 400 crew, is surrounded by rescue vessels at the old port on the Greek island of Santorini April 5, 2007. Hundreds of tonnes of oil trapped in the tanks of the sunken cruise ship must be pumped out immediately to avert an environmental disaster, Greenpeace said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Dimitris Prassos

The Sea Diamond, owned by Louis Cruise Lines, sank on April 6 a day after running aground off the island, forcing more than 1,500 passengers and crew to evacuate it. A French tourist and his daughter are missing and feared drowned.

Several special vessels have been battling a limited oil spill for 12 days but fears of a much bigger spill grow as about 400 tonnes of fuel oil remain inside the ship.

“The most serious concern is the fuel inside the cruise ship,” said Nikos Charalambidis, director of the Greek branch of the environmental group Greenpeace. “This spill we are dealing with now is minor, just some oil and other fluids but not from the fuel tanks.”

“Too much time has been wasted and not a day more should be lost. Over 400 tonnes of oil in the sea would mean 70 square kilometers of oil spill and pollution along 25 kilometers of coastline,” he told Reuters.

Santorini welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists each year and is one of the country’s most spectacular and upscale tourist destinations.

Islanders said the current spill had already shifted direction, avoiding floating dams and reaching the coast below the picturesque village of Oia. It has yet not reached Santorini’s best beaches, lined with volcanic black sand, on the eastern side of the island.

“The oil has reached the coast in some areas,” a Santorini port official told Reuters. “It is not extensive yet and efforts are being made to clean it off the rocks manually.”

The official said the island was still awaiting the government’s plans for pumping the remaining fuel from the ship.

“We are now using floating dams to try and control the spill and we are waiting to hear what the plan will be to get the oil out from the ship,” he said.

The country’s merchant marine ministry was expected to discuss environmental protection plans with interested parties later on Tuesday.

The government has been criticized for being too quick to praise the operation to rescue hundreds of American, European and Australian tourists from the Sea Diamond, only to later declare two people missing and see the ship sink.

The cruise company has attributed the sinking to human error, without naming a culprit. A Greek prosecutor charged the captain and five other crew members with negligence. If found guilty, they could face suspended prison sentences.