The sunken tanker Prestige could go on leaking fuel oil until 2006, causing long-lasting damage to the devastated coastline of northwest Spain, experts said. Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said yesterday that the sunken tanker was spewing up to 125 tonnes of fuel oil a day into the Atlantic Ocean from nine cracks in its bow section and five in the stern. “It would take between a minimum of five and a maximum of 39 months to empty the tanks,” Emilio Lora-Tamayo, the head of a scientific committee set up to analyse data on the tanker provided by the French mini-submarine Nautile, told reporters. This meant the Prestige, which broke in two and sank on November 19, might continue to leak oil until March 2006, he said. “When it comes to the flow, estimates are that there are some 80 tonnes per day leaking from the bow and around 45 tonnes from the stern. We are talking about 120 to 125 tonnes per day,” Rajoy told reporters in the port city of La Coruna. The 26-year-old tanker sank in 3.5 kms (2.2 miles) of water, about 130 nautical miles from the Spanish coast, six days after first springing a leak. It left in its wake a series of slicks which have ravaged wildlife in Spain's prime fishing region, Galicia. But as much as 60'000 tonnes of the tanker's cargo of 77'000 tonnes of thick fuel oil went down with the ship. Rajoy said the oil is taking about a day to rise from the wreck of the Prestige to the ocean surface. The speed at which the oil leaks out depends on the sea bed temperature - the colder the water, the slower the flow. Experts see two ways to stem the flow of oil sealing the cracks using a robot or pumping the oil out to a platform on the surface as if it were an oil field - but both are technically highly challenging. After minimising the impact of the spill in the first few weeks, a stance that brought wide criticism, the government is now calling it the country's worst ever environmental disaster. In an extraordinary admission on Monday, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said the government might have made mistakes in its early handling of the disaster. Rajoy said experts did not foresee any further cracking of the shattered hull. But the government has been forced to backtrack on similar statements before. The submarine Nautile has made several voyages to the Prestige and will return on Wednesday for a further examination. Specialised clean-up ships have collected some 11'200 tonnes of fuel oil from the sea and fishermen have scooped up 1'600 tonnes, but Rajoy said stormy weather had slowed their efforts in recent days. More than 7'000 military personnel, state workers and volunteers have scrubbed thousands of tonnes of oil off stretches of coastline, where nearly 200 beaches have been hit by the smelly tar.