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Galapagos Oil Spill Threatening

by GONZALO SOLANO Associated Press Writer

PUERTO AYORA, Galapagos Islands (AP) -- A team of U.S. experts headed Saturday for the ecologically fragile Galapagos Islands to help clean up an oil spill that officials said threatened to become ''a major environmental disaster.''

The tanker Jessica, carrying about 243,000 gallons of fuel, ran aground Tuesday. It began leaking diesel oil Friday into a bay on San Cristobal Island populated by rare marine species, government officials said.

Authorities blamed navigational error. Ecuadorean officials, saying they lacked the equipment for handling the spill, requested help Friday.

Ten members of the U.S. Coast Guard's pollution response National Strike Force headed to the easternmost island Saturday equipped with specialized oil spill equipment such as high-capacity pumps and inflatable oil containment barges, the Coast Guard said.

A coordinator from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was traveling with the team.

Fuel was steadily leaking through a fissure in the tanker, said Ecuador's environmental minister, Rodolfo Rendon. The current was pushing the spill south toward one of the largest colonies of sea lions in the archipelago, he said.

''If this situation continues, we may be faced with a major environmental disaster,'' Rendon said Saturday.

The U.S. team's main goal is to drain the oil from the ship, he said.

Crews from the state oil company also are trying to retrieve the oil from the Jessica. It was not clear how much fuel has spilled so far, but Rendon said 20,000 gallons of fuel had been retrieved.

The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, are famous for their giant tortoises and rare species of birds and plants. The islands were the basis for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Floating nets and barriers were erected to control the spill, but at least 12 sea lions and several birds already have been harmed by the fuel, Rendon said.

The spill also was threatening colonies of marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies and sea gulls, as well as sharks and lobsters, Galapagos National Park Director Eliecer Cruz said.

AP-NY-01-20-01 1635EST< 

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 21, 2001

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