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Spain Fears Environmental Disaster After Crippled Oil Tanker Sinks

A damaged tanker ship that had been leaking oil for several days has sunk off the coast of Spain. Spanish officials fear they are facing an ecological disaster.

The oil tanker Prestige, which was originally carrying 70,000 tons of fuel oil, broke in two and slowly sank. The vessel was about 250 kilometers off the Spanish mainland and has left an oil slick about 130 kilometers long.

Before the ship broke up, Spanish officials estimated that at least five tons of oil had leaked from it. Now they fear thousands more tons will be spilling into the Atlantic, and much of the oil will make its way to the the region of Galicia in northwest Spain.

Some of it already has. About 150 kilometers of the jagged Galician coastline is covered in oil.

The region is home to three wildlife preserves and hundreds of birds have been tarred by the oil slick. But the damage done to the area's fish and other sea life is believed to be worse.

The waters off Galicia are rich in a wide variety of fish, as well as crustacions like scallops, clams, and lobsters, which are especially popular in Spain during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Of all the areas in the European Union, the Galician is one of the most dependent on fishing, with about 2,500 people employed in the fishing industy.

Preliminary estimates of the economic losses caused by the oil spill are about $100 million. The Spanish government says it will hold the owners of the Prestige responsible for damages.

Though it was flying the flag of the Bahamas, the Prestige was registered in Liberia. It was carrying oil belonging to a company based in Switzerland.

The 26-year-old ship was last inspected in Rotterdam in 1999, when serious deficiences were detected. The Prestige's Greek captain was rescued from the ship on Sunday and immediately arrested by Spain for ignoring the orders of emergency officials and for damaging the environment.