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France begins clean-up operation after cargo ship oil spill

Handout | MARINE NATIONALE | AFP Ongoing clean-up operations from a ship fitted with anti-pollution gear, after the Italian cargo ship Grande America burned and sank in the Gascogne Gulf, off the western French coast, on March 15, 2019.

French authorities began a clean-up operation on Friday after the Italian container ship “Grande America” sank off the French Atlantic Coast while carrying 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel.

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Despite poor weather conditions, four ships began a clean-up operation on Friday afternoon. The 214-metre-long vessel sank on Tuesday, 300 kilometres west of the French town of La Rochelle, carrying 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel.

“Their efficiency totally depends on the weather,” said French maritime authorities. 

While two oil slicks had already been spotted on Wednesday and Thursday, a new one was spotted on Friday during a surveillance flight. The new slick was observed near the area where the vessel sank and "seems to confirm that there is still a release of heavy fuel oil from the wreck", which lies at a depth of 4,600 metres, French maritime authorities added.

Forecasts show fragments of the slick reaching parts of the Atlantic coast by Sunday or Monday.

2,000 cars, 365 shipping containers on board

The ship was sailing from Hamburg, Germany, to Casablanca, Morocco, when a fire broke out on Sunday.

In addition to 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel the "Grande America" had on board, it was also transporting 2,000 cars and 365 shipping containers, 45 of which held dangerous materials, including a hundred tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 70 tonnes of sulphuric acid.

All 27 people on board were safely evacuated before the vessel sank.

"[This shipwreck] is problematic," said Christian Buchet, director of the Centre of Ocean Studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris, in an interview with RTL.

"Everything that burned -- the containers, the drums of hydrochloric and sulphuric acid -- that doesn't disappear. It goes up into the atmosphere."

Eric Gaillard, Reuters | Hydrocarbon slabs, from an oil spill after two ships collided in the waters off Corsica, October 7, are seen on the Plage de Pampelonne beach near Ramatuelle, France, October 16, 2018.

The cause of the fire is unknown, but it is believed to have broken out on the car deck before spreading to a container, according to Jean-Louis Lozier, head of the regional maritime authority.

"Dilution in the ocean would not have serious consequences for the environment," Lozier said.

He added that the pollution risk posed by the chemicals "would be very localised".

But not everyone agrees.

"The major threat for the ocean is acidification," explained Buchet. "The ocean absorbs our pollution and it is dying because of it."

The French environmental campaign group Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) said it intended to file a criminal complaint over the environmental damage.

"Two thousand vehicles -- it's a car crash at the bottom of the sea, representing hundreds of tonnes of toxic materials in an area very rich in fish, plankton and marine animals," said the NGO's spokesman Jacky Bonnemains, adding he also feared coastal pollution.

Local authorities have opened an investigation.

But Yannick Jadot, a French member of the European Parliament and environmental activist, believes that not enough has been done to prevent such disasters.

"It's tragic, the laxity that often exists regarding maritime transport," Jadot said, adding that the oil slick would be "tragic for the French coast".

The last spill off the French coast occurred in December 2011, when the cargo ship TK Bremen ran aground in northwest France, losing an estimated 70 tonnes of fuel.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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