WWF, Greenpeace Say Greece Unprepared for Marine Disasters, Oil Spills

Workers clean a beach from an oil spillage at Faliro suburb, near Athens, on Thursday,Sept. 14, 2017. Greek authorities insist they are doing everything they can to clean up pollution caused by an oil spill following the sinking of a small oil tanker that has left large sections of the Greek capital's coastal areas coated in viscous, foul-smelling oil. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

ATHENS – With beaches closed because of an oil spill off the island of Salamina near Greece’s capital, environmental groups, joining criticism of the government’s response to the disaster, said the country isn’t prepared to deal with marine catastrophes.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said that a country that has the world’s largest shipping fleet and constant traffic of oil tankers should have a better emergency plan to deal with leaks, such as that from the sinking of the Aghia Zoni II off the coast of Salamina.

The island nearly abuts the mainland coast and is only 19.2 kilometers (11.9 miles) from the major port of Piraeus that was hit with the oil slick from the sunken vessel, and as the contamination then spread further east and hit popular beaches, including those at Alimos and Glyfada, which are big weekend haunts for people.

WWF’s Greek branch said in an announcement, “appears unprepared to respond in a timely manner to protect its marine wealth and coasts, even in an incident that was initially of a relatively restricted scope, Kathimerini reported.

“Unfortunately, the danger of marine pollution incidents is very real,” WWF added.

Greenpeace sent a team of experts to Salamina to conduct their own assessment of the damage, with activists laying out a banner on one of the island’s hardest-hit coastal stretches reading: “Coming to a beach near you,” the paper said

“If a relatively small leak can cause such destruction right beside the country’s biggest port and the operations center of the Shipping Ministry, what exactly is the country’s capability in dealing with leaks and accidents from large-scale oil operations in the Ionian and Cretan seas,” Greenpeace’s local energy campaign officer, Takis Grigoriou, said, referring to plans for natural gas exploration. “The question is not whether another accident will happen, but when,” he added.

The tanker, which Greece’s Merchant Marine Ministry says sank in 15 minutes, was carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. It is unclear how much fuel escaped, before divers sealed the wreck, into waters that host dolphins, turtles, and a variety of fish and sea birds.

Floating booms have been set up at various points along the coast of Athens, while about 20 vessels are taking part in the clean-up operation.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chaired a government meeting on the spill on Sept. 15 and his office said he called for stricter inspections of merchant vessels, and the use of more clean-up ships to get rid of the pollution.

“All the means available in the country” are being deployed to tackle the spill in the Saronic Gulf, Merchant Marine Minister Panagiotis Kouroumplis said on Sept. 14.

“Things are developing very well and from day to day there is a huge improvement,” he said, adding that authorities estimate the “situation will have completely changed” in 25-30 days. He had offered to resign over the debacle if Tsipras asked him – the Prime Minister didn’t – and Kouroumplis later said he didn’t mean what he said and that it was only “a play on words.”

Greece has requested help from the European Union and a specialized cleanup vessel has been deployed, with the main opposition New Democracy Conservatives mocking the government for what it said was incompetence in dealing with the crisis.

Critics have accused the government of not acting quickly enough prevent the spill from spreading from Salamina across the coastline.

The Saronic Gulf is home to dolphins, turtles, a wide variety of fish and sea birds. Environmental and wildlife organizations have been posting instructions on social media on how residents can help any stricken wildlife they come across.

The Mayor of Glyfada, Giorgos Papanikolaou, earlier posted a message on Facebook saying that he intends to take legal action over the pollution that has reached his municipality’s coast, a popular swimming spot for the capital’s residents.

Greek authorities banned swimming along a long line of popular Athens beaches on Friday following extensive sea pollution from the sinking of a small oil tanker five days ago, which prompted a large containment and cleanup operation.

The swimming ban covers much of a 20-kilometer (13-mile) stretch from Greece’s main port of Piraeus to Glyfada, further south, as well as part of Salamina. A Health Ministry statement said the prohibition would last until the beaches have been cleaned.

Much of the area has been contaminated by slicks of heavy fuel oil from the Agia Zoni II tanker, which sank Sept. 11 while anchored in calm seas off Salamina, close to Piraeus.

An Athens prosecutor filed criminal charges against the ship-owning company and the crew for alleged breaches of environmental legislation. If proved in court, the charges carry a minimum 5-year prison sentence.

An investigating judge will also examine whether state agencies responsible for addressing the pollution did their job properly, following complaints that the slick should have been contained before it traveled far from the wreck.

In a report to judicial authorities,  Papanikolaou and the Mayor of neighboring Alimos said the spill caused “incalculable damage to the environment” and harmed local hotels, restaurants and fishermen.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)