When the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground on the coast of Italy over the weekend, resulting in the deaths of at least six passengers, it marked one of the worst incidents involving a luxury vessel in recent memory -- but the full extent of the damage may be yet to come. The ship is said to be loaded with some 2,380 tons of oil which, as the situation progresses, could very likely be spilled into the pristine, ecologically rich waters near the site of the wreck.
"This is an ecological timebomb," says Sergio Ortelli, mayor of the small Tuscan island of Giglio, along the rocky shores of which Costa Concordia became lodged. "This is the second worry, after human lives. I hope that the fuel can be taken off the ship soon and maybe the ship can be removed too because it is hampering navigation. We are monitoring constantly but there has been no spill so far."
News 24 reports that Italian officials have already begun laying down oil booms around the wreck in the event that oil does leak. Still, the situation surrounding the wrecked cruise ship is hardly under control as its precarious positioning and pounding of waves could result in it sinking entirely, making oil containment much more difficult.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini meanwhile said that the environmental risk has been "our nightmare".
"The vessel has reservoirs full of fuel, it is a heavy diesel which could sink down to the seabed, that would be a disaster," he said.
In a worst-case scenario, the fuel could "leak into the sea, contaminating an exceptional coastline and affecting marine and bird life," he warned.
"We are ready to intervene if there is a spill," Clini said. "As soon as possible, the fuel will be removed from the vessel. But we have to take into account the precarious state of the ship."
Costa Crociere head Pier Luigi Foschi said on Monday the company had commissioned several firms to look at the best way to salvage the vessel.
In light of the tragedy, there is a bit of good news. Experts say the fact that the threat of an oil spill is merely looming and not underway was the matter of luck. If the hole in the hull had been four or five metres further along it would have punctured the tanks," says one salvage company representative.
But as the cost to human lives resulting from the wreck have yet to be fully counted, only time will tell whether one of the worst cruise liner accidents in Italian history will also lead to one of the worst environmental disasters as well.