WATCH: Oil spill forces Greek authorities to close Athens beaches

2017-09-16 12:43
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Athens, Greece — Greek authorities have banned swimming along a long line of popular Athens beaches following extensive sea pollution from the sinking of a small oil tanker five days ago, which prompted a large containment and clean-up operation.

The clean-up operation happens to fall over International Coastal Clean-Up Day which takes place on Saturday, 16 September.

SEE: #ResponsibleTourism: SA gets ready for International Coastal Clean-up Day

The swimming ban covers much of a 20-kilometer stretch from Greece's main port of Piraeus to Glyfada, further south, as well as part of the island of Salamina. A Health Ministry statement says 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 on Sunday, 10 September, while anchored in calm seas off Salamina, close to Piraeus.

An Athens prosecutor filed criminal charges on Friday, 15 September, 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 travelled far from the wreck.

ALSO SEE: #ResponsibleTourism: How to play your part in Clean-up & Recycle SA Week

In a report to judicial authorities on Friday, the mayors of Glyfada and neighboring Alimos say the spill caused "incalculable damage to the environment" and harmed local hotels, restaurants and fishermen.

"This year, hundreds of thousands of people visited Glyfada's beaches, because for the first time one of our beaches received an award for the exceptional quality of its waters," the report says. "Now, however, this distinction is useless."

The government insists it did all it could to fight the pollution, arguing that the situation is improving from day to day.

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 Friday. His office says he called for stricter inspections of merchant vessels, and the use of more clean-up ships to get rid of the pollution.

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