0

Potential fuel leak feared in cruise wreck

Italian firefighters scuba divers approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side, the day after it ran aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. A helicopter on Sunday airlifted a third survivor from the capsized hulk of a luxury cruise ship 36 hours after it ran aground off the Italian coast, as prosecutors confirmed they were investigating the captain for manslaughter charges and abandoning the ship. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Italian firefighters scuba divers approach the cruise ship Costa Concordia leaning on its side, the day after it ran aground off the tiny Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. A helicopter on Sunday airlifted a third survivor from the capsized hulk of a luxury cruise ship 36 hours after it ran aground off the Italian coast, as prosecutors confirmed they were investigating the captain for manslaughter charges and abandoning the ship. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME -- Italy's cruise liner tragedy turned into an environmental crisis Monday, as rough seas battering the stricken mega-ship raised fears that fuel might leak into pristine waters off Tuscany that are part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, porpoises and whales.

The ship's jailed captain, meanwhile, lost the support of his Italian employer as he battled prosecutors' claims that he caused the deadly wreck and abandoned a sinking ship before its 4,200 passengers and crew had been evacuated.

Waters that had remained calm for the first three days of the rescue turned choppy Monday, shifting the wreckage of the Costa Concordia a few inches and suspending divers' searches for the 16 people still unaccounted for. At least six people were killed in the disaster.

Italy's environmental minister raised the alarm about a potential environmental catastrophe if any of the 2,300 tons of fuel begins to leak into the pristine waters off Giglio, which are popular with scuba divers and form part of the protected Tuscan archipelago.

"At the moment there haven't been any fuel leaks, but we have to intervene quickly to avoid an environmental disaster," Corrado Clini told RAI state radio.

Even before the accident there had been mounting calls from environmentalists to restrict passage of large ships in the area.

The ship's operator, Costa Crociere SpA, has enlisted Smit of Rotterdam, Netherlands, one of the world's biggest salvagers, to handle the removal of the 1,000-foot cruise liner. A study could come as early as today on how to extract the fuel safely.

Smit has a long track record of dealing with wrecks and leaks, including refloating grounded bulk carriers and securing drilling platforms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A spokesman for Smit did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the Concordia salvage.

The Italian cruise operator said Capt. Francesco Schettino made an unauthorized deviation that caused the ship to crash late Friday into a reef off the tiny island of Giglio and capsize a few miles away near port.

The navigational "fly by" of Giglio was apparently made as a favor to the chief waiter, who is from Giglio and whose parents live on the island, local media reported.

A judge is to decide today whether Schettino should remain jailed.

"We are struck by the unscrupulousness of the reckless maneuver that the commander of the Costa Concordia made near the island of Giglio," prosecutor Francesco Verusio told reporters. "It was inexcusable."

The head of the U.N. agency on maritime safety, meanwhile, said lessons must be learned from the Concordia disaster 100 years after the Titanic rammed into an iceberg, leading to the first international convention on sea safety.