Oil Slick Off South Africa Coats Shore

From Times Wire Services

A stretch of Cape Town's previously pristine coastline was coated Sunday with thick black sludge from a sunken tanker. The oil slick had also brought the city's shipping to a halt.

The Panamanian-registered Treasure, carrying 1,300 tons of fuel oil, sank Friday just six miles offshore. Since then, the oil has made its way steadily toward the shoreline.

A huge cleanup operation was underway Sunday, with workers loading oil-coated kelp into trucks and vacuuming up pools of sludge.

About 1,200 penguins have been collected at the Robben Island nature reserve and taken by boat or helicopter to be cleaned on the mainland.

At a center run by the South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, dozens of volunteers in plastic overalls cleaned the oil from the wriggling birds.

The spill could affect up to 10,000 penguins, since it is the animals' breeding season and about 6,000 chicks on the island were at risk, said the foundation's chairman, Paul Briton. About 150,000 jackass penguins live off South Africa's coast, 19,000 of them on Robben Island, used by the former apartheid government to detain political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, later South Africa's president.

Air surveys revealed oil collecting at the mouth of Cape Town's harbor. Booms prevented the oil from entering but also blocked ships from coming or going.

The oil reached a stretch of coastline on the southern side of Cape Town. However, the slick had not hit the most popular beaches, though they were still considered to be under threat.

The bulk of the tanker's oil is believed to be contained in its fuel tanks, and plans were underway to pump the oil into another vessel.

The 17-year-old ship sank after developing a hole in its hull, which had either rusted or cracked from age or stress.

The ship was too large to be towed to the harbor for repairs, and authorities ordered it moved farther offshore to reduce the risk of oil pollution.

But after two hours under tow in heavy seas, the towrope ripped loose, and the ship drifted eastward and sank. All 29 crew members were airlifted to safety.

The Treasure was heading from China to Brazil with a load of iron ore.

The Weekend Argus newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying the ship was owned by Universal Pearls--the same Chinese shipping company that owned the Apollo Sea, which sank off Cape Town's coast in 1994 and caused extensive environmental damage.

The 1994 disaster triggered one of the world's largest seabird rescue operations--10,000 oil-covered penguins were retrieved and cleaned.

Although less than half survived, birds were returned successfully to the wild and have been breeding ever since.

Other species under threat include gannets, cormorants and seals.

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