A tanker laden with 70'000 tonnes of fuel oil split and sank off northwest Spain yesterday, triggering what environmental activists said could become one of the world's worst oil spills. “I can confirm that the Prestige has sunk. The fore section sank at 1615 CET (1515 GMT),” said Lars Walder, a spokesman for the Dutch salvage company Smit Salvage, whose tugs earlier towed the vessel out to sea in the hope of protecting the coast. The stern section sank hours earlier. Salvage crews had battled to keep afloat the battered bow section of the Prestige, 130 miles off the coast in Atlantic waters 3'600 metres (11'880 feet) deep. Experts said the ship's tanks might crack upon hitting the sea floor, implode from the pressure or eventually rust through. Walder said it might be possible to pump the remaining oil from the tanks, but the depth of the sea and the bad weather would make any such operation extremely difficult. The tanker was carrying twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez was when it ran aground in Alaska in 1989, causing a spill that devastated a stretch of pristine wilderness. Spanish officials said the Bahamian-flagged Prestige spilled 5'000 to 6'000 tonnes of its load when the vessel broke apart, adding to the 5'000 tonne spill that had left a 17 km (10 mile) oil slick in the ship's wake as it was pulled out to sea. The oil has blackened the rugged coastline of Galicia, thrown 1'000 Spanish fishermen out of work and coated sea birds. One of Europe's richest fisheries - habitat for such delicacies as goose barnacles and lobster -was under threat as the wind blew more oil from the sinking ship towards the coast. “If the oil tanker loses all its oil...if all that escapes from the hull, then this is a disaster which is going to have twice the effect of the Exxon Valdez, which is one of the worst that we have known,” Christopher Hails, the World Wildlife Fund International's programme director, said from Switzerland. Toxic chemicals in the oil threaten to have “more insidious and longer-term effects” on the ecosystem than the immediate physical damage to marine life, Hails said. While the Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil, the Prestige was carrying fuel oil, more harmful to wildlife. Hails and environmentalists from Greenpeace said as much oil as possible should be transferred from the ship's tanks. Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said three cleanup ships had been sent to the scene. Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso said a Portuguese frigate would join a corvette already in the area. But Smit Salvage's Walder said the heavy swell meant nothing could be done to stop the oil slick heading for the coast. “It may look calm and sunny on television but there are five metre (16-foot) waves, which is normal at this time of year. It is impossible to stop it,” Walder said. The wind and current were expected to push the oil towards Spain's Galicia region for at least the next 48 hours, a spokesman for Portugal's Hydrographic Institute said. Asked if he feared an environmental catastrophe, Portuguese Environment Minister Isaltino Morais said: “Naturally.” No European port had been willing to take in the vessel after its hull cracked in an Atlantic storm last Wednesday. Salvage tugs had tried to tow it out to sea to limit damage to the craggy coast of Galicia, where seafood and summer tourism are vital to the local economy. European Union officials said old, single-hulled tankers like the Prestige would be banned from EU waters under legislation taking effect in 2005. From next year they will face stricter inspections at EU ports. Some officials expressed shock that elderly ships like the Prestige were still allowed to sail the high seas. “I am horrified by the inability of those in charge, politically, nationally and particularly at European level, to take action to stem the laxity which permits these ships fit only for the dustbin to carry on,” French President Jacques Chirac told reporters on a visit near Paris. “Now we must urgently take draconian measures, both severe and serious, even if they harm the interests of certain companies whose interests are not worth defending,” he added.