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Future of Fishing Towns is Uncertain After 'Prestige' Oil Spill - 2002-11-22

Spain's Galicia region is bracing for more bad news after an oil tanker broke up and sank more than 200 kilometers off the coast. Local weather forecasts predict a major storm could hit the area within the coming hours, possibly washing up more oil.

Xavier Fodia walked a polluted stretch of beach near Caion, Spain Thursday morning, where slimy oil has already smeared once sparkling sands. Mr. Fodia is a 29-year-old government tourist worker from the nearby city of La Coruna. He has played and sunned on these beaches since childhood.

Speaking halting English, Mr. Fodia said he was so sad about what had happened to a fishing town he loves. About half of Caion's estimated 1,000 residents earn their livelihood from fishing. That's one of the main industries of Spain's rugged coastal region of Galicia. But since the Prestige oil tanker sank Tuesday, they are out of work.

Residents are now bracing for what the region's uncertain weather and seas will bring next. On Thursday, the local weather service predicted a major storm would hit within the next 48 hours, possibly washing another thick coating of black oil onto previously untouched beaches.

The sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, more than 160 kilometers off Galicia's Cape Finisterre, is hardly the first setback for a region known as "the Coast of Death."

The scope of this latest accident remains unclear. Spanish officials and environmentalists have offered conflicting assessments about the amount of wildlife affected by the accident, the size and shape of off-shore slicks, and the amount of oil already washed ashore. And nobody knows what will ultimately happen to almost 70,000 tons of fuel oil still believed aboard the sunken ship.

The uncertainty worries Esther Norjade, who owns a cafe in Caion. Ms. Norjade said her husband is a fisherman. Everybody in the town relies on fishing, one way or another.

European Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is expected in Galicia Friday. But already another top European Commission member, Fernando de Esteban, was in Caion assessing the local damage.

Mr. de Esteban rebutted accusations that Spain had been slow to react to the spill. The fault, he said, comes from boats that are even more dangerous than the polluted goods they carry. Mr. Esteban predicted that Ms. Palacio would likely announce an emergency assistance package from Brussels, to help battered regions like Caion.