Greek oil spill forces closure of popular beaches in Athens

The leak has been described as an ‘ecological disaster’, with authorities accused of failing to recognize the scale of threat 

 Workers clean a beach in the Athens suburb of Palaio Faliro (Photo: Yorgos Karahalis)
Workers clean a beach in the Athens suburb of Palaio Faliro (Photo: Yorgos Karahalis)

An emergency operation is currently underway to clean up an oil spill from a sunken tanker, which has blackened well-loved popular beaches and bays in Athens’ Argo-Sarconic gulf.

It was initially believed to be a containable spill but is now being described as an “ecological disaster” by officials, after thick tar and oil pollution drifted towards residential coastal areas.

Today, four days after the 45-year-old Agia Zoni II sank off Salamina island, mayors in suburbs south of Athens were forced to close off the beaches, citing public health risks.

“This is a major environmental disaster”, said the mayor of Salamina, Isidora Nannou-Papathanassiou.

“Clearly, the danger [of pollution] was not properly gauged, the currents have moved the spill”.

The vessel sank while at anchor, in the early hours of Sunday. It was reported to be carrying 2,500 tonnes of fuel oil and marine gas when it sunk, in mild weather. It has emerged that only two of it’s 11 crew – the captain and the chief engineer – were on board when it began to sink. Both have been charged with negligence but have since been freed on bail.

The company operating the small, Greek-flagged tanker, insisted it was seaworthy.

Merchant marine officials said initial emphasis had been placed on sealing the vessel’s cargo holds in order to stop any further leakage. The merchant marine minister, Panagiotis Kouroumnlis, who brought in help from overseas, including an anti-pollution truck to collect the oil, ruled out any further seepage on Tuesday, reporting that the ship’s hull had since been secured.

On Wednesday, however, the ministry’s general secretary, Dionysis Kalamatianos, implied that it was possible the oil was still leaking, telling Skai TV that efforts to seal it were “almost complete”.

A oil-covered bird struggles to stay afloat off Salamína island (Photo: The Guardian)
A oil-covered bird struggles to stay afloat off Salamína island (Photo: The Guardian)

The contradictory statements sparked accusations that authorities had not only underestimated the scale of the spill, but also lost valuable time in tackling it.

The pollution extends for miles, with some officials claiming the clean-up could take up to four months – much longer than the initial 20 days Kouroumblis had estimated.

In the Athens suburb Glyfada, floating dams have been set up and chemicals used to dissolve the spillage. Mayor Giorgos Papanikolaou said 28 tonnes of fuel had been removed from one beach alone.

On Salamína, which has been hardest hit by the disaster, coastal businesses have been forced to shut down.

Dimitris Karavellas, the head of WWF Greece, said there were “a lot of open questions” about how the accident occurred. “What is clear is that this is no minor incident,” he said. “It is an environmental crime, the worst spillage in years and authorities are clearly totally unprepared. It is very important that a precedent is set, that those responsible are held accountable, that they are made to pay for the damage and it is properly assessed.”

Environmental groups said the disaster highlighted the dangers underlying Greece’s quest to exploit oil and natural gas deposits.

“If authorities can’t manage a relatively ‘controlled’ incident outside the country’s largest port, it’s hard to imagine how a much bigger incident on an oil platform would be handled,” said Karavellas. “As we have always said, Greece’s [oil and gas] future is not the safest way to go.”

Images of of dead and oil-coated turtle’s and birds underscored the economic and environmental impact, and experts estimated it could take years before the affected area fully recovered.

More in World

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition