A specialized crew member takes part in an operation to clean the oil spill from the shores of Piraeus, a southeast suburb of Athens, capital of Greece, on Sept. 14, 2017. A major clean-up operation which was underway on Thursday to address an oil spill that has spread across a large area of the Saronic Gulf will last for about three weeks, Greek Shipping Minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis told a press briefing. The environmental crisis broke out on Sunday after the sinking of small tanker "Agia Zoni II" carrying about 2,500 tons of oil, which was anchored off Salamina Island under still unclear circumstances. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)
By Maria Spiliopoulou
ATHENS, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- A major clean-up operation which was underway on Thursday to address an oil spill that has spread across a large area of the Saronic Gulf will last for about three weeks, Greek Shipping minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis told a press briefing.
As oil slicks have blackened the sea area and several shores from Salamina island to Piraeus port suburbs and Athens' southern seafront, several local mayors have warned with legal action "against whoever are responsible" for the environmental disaster, Greek national news agency AMNA reported.
The environmental crisis broke out on Sunday after the sinking of small tanker "Agia Zoni II" which was anchored off Salamina Island under still unclear circumstances.
In the first hours the oil leaked by the vessel affected an area of about 1.5 kilometers along the island's coasts, but due to winds in the next days it gradually spread several nautical miles further and reached Piraeus suburbs and popular beaches in southern Athens districts, such as Glyfada and Voula.
Following a visit at the coastal areas of Piraeus on Thursday, the Shipping Minister Kouroumblis assured that the situation is improving.
"It is truly a difficult day. A gigantic effort is underway in order to limit the consequences caused by this sinking," Kouroumblis said.
He said clean-up crews have managed to seal off the submerged tanker and prevent any further leakage from Tuesday, adding that the oil still inside the ship will be pumped out within the day.
The tanker was carrying about 2,500 tons of oil, according to the shipping company "Agia Zoni" which owns the ship. It was still unclear on Thursday how much quantity had leaked into the sea.
"Our island has suffered a huge ecological destruction at the sea and the shores... Across two kilometers - the damage is already obvious from the air- people have left their homes... We request and we make a plea to not abandon us," Salamina's mayor Isidora Nanou told Xinhua on Thursday.
The oil spill has added to the woes of an island which for several years has suffered environmental issues and economic hardship, she said.
"For our part, immediately after the sinking of the ship, which is a huge blow to us, our staff and our families, we instructed the private company that undertook the work of decontamination, to do all that is humanly and technically possible to fully clean the affected area," the shipping company said in a statement.
More than 60 specialized members of cleaning crews, assisted by the Greek Coast Guard and volunteers, are struggling to contain the oil spill and clean up the shores.
The Coast Guard and the Shipping ministry went into action immediately after the tanker's sinking, the emergency plan came into effect 16 minutes after the incident and all available forces were mobilized, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said in an interview with local Real FM on Thursday, responding to criticism by local authorities, residents and environmental groups for "delayed and inadequate" response to reduce the impact.
Greece requested the activation of the European Mechanism of Policy Protection, asking for an anti- pollution vessel which has already started operating in the affected areas, European Commissioner of Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said, according to a statement from the European Commission's representation offices in Athens.
As cleanup crews discover many oil-soaked birds and fish, the Greek branches of environmental groups such as Greenpeace expressed concern on the long term effects on the environment, finding the Greek state "unprepared" to respond effectively to the incident which seemed small in the first hours.
Biologist Markos Akylas, President of Salamina's Environmental Group PERIVOS, told Xinhua on Thursday in one of the island's blackened shores that the means available were not enough.
He urged for more means and asked authorities to continue monitoring the situation after the first cleanup stage.
"We want to see them monitoring the situation for a few months, for quite some time, so we can check which the impact on the food chain is, as well as monitor pollution which is not obvious in the naked eye. We want to check what is happening with heavy metals and other factors polluting the area," Akylas said.
Biologist Alkis Kafetzis, responsible for informing the public regarding the marine environment at Greenpeace- Greece, called on the Greek government to cancel plans for leasing sea areas for hydrocarbon research and exploitation to avoid larger environmental destructions in the future.
"Taking a glimpse at the situation in Salamina we can all imagine the extent of the problem if major scale hydrocarbon extractions start in Greece," he told Xinhua on Thursday.
The mayors of Salamina, Piraeus and Glyfada have told local media that they plan to take legal action over the pollution "against whoever is responsible".
Greece's Sailor Association (PENEN) said in a statement the tanker which caused the destruction was built four decades ago, was poorly maintained and was in a bad condition.
The company insisted that all the necessary certificates were up to date and all inspections required under law had been done.