Oil Spill Threatens Galapagos

ByABC News
January 22, 2001, 5:04 AM

Jan. 22 -- The rare Galapagos Penguin and some 5,000 species of plants and animals that live in the Galapagos Islands could be at risk from a massive fuel oil spill that has flooded 150,000 gallons of toxic fuel into local waters since Friday.

Experts say any imbalance in the food chain in one of the worlds most fragile ecosystems could seriously threaten plant and animal species that have evolved for thousands of years in isolation with little human intervention.

All species, marine and coastal in the Galapagos Islands could be affected if there are changes in the food chain, said Peter Kramer, World Wide Fund for Natures Network Relations Director, and former president of the Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands.

Ecuador, which has sovereignty over the islands, had earlier appealed for international help to contain the spillage. In an alarming account of the extent of the spill, Ecuadorean Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendon said the environmental damage is extremely grave.

He said surf pounding the Ecuadorean tanker Jessica, which ran aground Tuesday in a bay off San Cristobal Island, opened new fissures in its hull, speeding up the rate of the leak.

Environmental Ministry spokesman Mauro Cerbino had earlier said the Jessica went aground because the captain was navigating through shallow waters without a map.

The oil slick is believed to have affected a 117-square-mile area.

The Ecuadorean-registered vessel which was carrying 243,000 gallons of diesel when it ran aground, currently lies tilted sharply toward its left side about 550 yards off San Cristobals shores.

A minor spill began late Friday when a pipe in the ships machine room burst. But the serious contamination began early Saturday, when strong waves spread the diesel and bunker fuel aboard the Jessica.

Coast Guards on the Job

The team of U.S. experts, including 10 members of the U.S. Coast Guards pollution response National Strike Force, arrived in the Galapagos Islands late Sunday, said Dan Dewell, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. They arrived with specialized oil spill equipment, such as inflatable oil containment barges, and high-capacity pumps to help remove remaining fuel from the ships storage tanks.