Pipeline spills crude into French nature reserve

SAINT-MARTIN-DE-CRAU, France (Reuters) - Four thousand cubic meters (140,000 cu ft) of crude oil has spewed into a nature reserve on the edge of France’s Camargue national park after an underground pipe burst, officials said on Friday.

“This is a real ecological disaster,” junior environmental minister Chantal Jouanno told reporters after visiting the area in the far south of France.

The spill spread over 2 hectares (5 acres) of the Coussouls de Crau reserve near the town of Saint-Martin-de-Crau, which was created in 2001 and is home to thousands of birds.

The site lies at the entrance to the Camargue park, a vast expanse of plains and marshland, famous for its wild horses and bulls, that boards the Mediterranean Sea.

The fractured pipeline was operated by the Societe du Pipeline Sud-Europeen (SPSE), which supplies refineries and a petrochemical plant in France, Switzerland and Germany.

Jouanno said the SPSE was responsible for the spillage.

“We will have to draw the consequences for all the pipelines in France,” she added.

Built in 1971, the broken pipe was a meter wide and buried some 80 cm (31.5 inches) under the ground.

A clean-up operation was already underway and officials said all the crude would be removed alone with the tainted earth.

A spokeswoman for SPSE said there would be no halt in supplies because the company had alternative pipeline networks.

The leak occurred at about 8.30 a.m. (0630 GMT) and as soon as it was detected a 20-km stretch of pipeline was shut off.

On its website, SPSE lists shareholders including France’s Total, U.S. firm ExxonMobil and Britain’s BP.

(Reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet, Mathilde Cru and Estelle Shirbon)

Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Philippa Fletcher