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Oil spill heading to Brittany coast after cargo ship sinks
French authorities are rushing to stop an oil slick reaching the French coastline after an Italian cargo ship carrying 45 containers of "dangerous materials" and some 2,200 of fuel sank in the Atlantic.
The sheet of oil, 10 kilometres long and one km wide, could hit parts of the country's southwest region near the port city of Bordeaux on Sunday.
"According to our forecasts, fragments could reach some areas of the coast in Nouvelle-Aquitaine by Sunday or Monday owing to bad weather, which also risks making the anti-pollution operation more difficult," environment minister Francois de Rugy said Wednesday.
France is to deploy four ships to help battle the oil slick at sea and will prepare for a clean-up operation on land, he added.
Royal Navy to the rescue
The Italian-registerd Grande America was en route from Hamburg in Germany to Casablanca in Morocco when a fire broke out late on Sunday.
All 27 people on board were evacuated the following day as the fire worsened, before the ship sank some 300 km west of the town of La Rochelle on Tuesday.
The 26 crew members and single passenger were rescued by Britain's Royal Navy.
Pollution risk "very localised"
Jean-Louis Lozier, head of the regional maritime authority, said the ship's Italian owner Grimaldi had indicated that 365 shipping containers were onboard, "of which 45 are carrying dangerous materials", as well as around 2,000 vehicles.
"For now the possible pollution risk consists mainly of the 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board," told reporters in Brest on France's Brittany coast.
"Around forty containers fell into the sea before the ship sank," he said. "Most of them where badly damaged by the fire."
The fire was thought to have broken out on the car deck before spreading to a container, but that the cause was unknown, Lozier said.
The contents include a hundred tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 70 tonnes of sulphuric acid, but Lozier said the pollution risk posed by the chemicals "would be very localised", adding most of it would have already burned in the fire.
Environmentalists to take legal action
Despite reassurances that "dilution in the ocean would not have serious consequences for the environment", 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.
Local authorities have opened an investigation and the ship's owner has been warned to "take all necessary measures to contribute to the fight against pollution", the environment minister said.
The Amoco Cadiz oil spill of March 1978 is still etched in France's memory. The tanker ran aground off the coast of Brittany, causing one of the world's worst oil pollution disasters.
The 227,000-ton tanker broke up on the reefs off the small fishing port of Portsall, covering miles of coastline in oil.