French authorities are rushing to contain a major fuel spill off the coast of Brittany after an Italian container ship sank following a fire.
Rescue teams from France and the UK saved all 27 people aboard the Grande America after it sank after a major blaze broke out on Tuesday,
The ship was carrying over 2,000 vehicles, 365 shipping containers, of which 40 contained “hazardous materials” and some 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, according to Jean-Louis Lozier, head of the regional maritime authority in Brittany.
“For now the possible pollution risk consists mainly of the 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board,” Mr Lozier told reporters in Brest.
“Around forty containers fell into the sea before the ship sank,” he said. “Most of them were badly damaged by the fire.”
French authorities will try to tackle the spill by deploying four ships and preparing for a cleanup operation on land.
According to the AFP news agency, the fire is believed to have broken out on the car deck before spreading to a container, but the cause remains unknown at this stage.
The contents of the containers include a hundred tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 70 tonnes of sulphuric acid, but Mr Lozier said the pollution risk posed by the chemicals “would be very localised”, and most of it would have already been burned in the fire.
Images released on Thursday by the French navy showed flames and plumes of black smoke spewing from the ship as it listed hard over to one side.
The maritime authority said the ship has already leaked fuel over an area of about 10 kilometres (6 miles) long and one kilometre wide. It is believed it could reach the south coast of Brittany by the end of the weekend.
The Grande America sank about 200 miles west of La Rochelle (AFP)
A French cleanup ship is on its way to the area. France has also asked the European Maritime Security Agency for help using satellites to locate leaks.
The ship sank about 330 kilometres (200 miles) west of the French city of La Rochelle, while en route from Hamburg to Casablanca.
The regional prosecutor has opened an investigation, and France has issued a formal warning to the ship’s operator to assess the damage and help prevent more leaking, the French government minister in charge of the environment, Francois de Rugy said.
According to AFP, French environmental campaign group Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) said it intends to file a 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 Jacky Bonnemains, spokesman for the NGO, adding he also feared possible coastal pollution.
The Amoco Cadiz oil spill in 1978 is still etched in the collective memory of Brittany. It remains the world’s worst oil spill of its kind, with the region taking decades to recover after 220,880 metric tonnes of oil were spilled when a ship broke up in stormy weather.