Italians worry how shipwreck will affect island

Seagulls fly in front of the grounded cruise ship Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy, Jan. 30, 2012. AP Photo

GIGLIO, Italy - Residents of the Italian island of Giglio held a strategy meeting Monday as fears mounted about threats to the environment and their prized tourism industry from the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship lying off the coast.

Officials have ruled out finding anyone else alive more than two weeks after the ship hit a reef. Worries are now focusing on the impact the disaster could have on the pristine Tuscan region, especially if tons of fuel and chemical pollutants spill from the ship.

Ahead of the closed-door meeting, some residents hung a banner demanding the removal of the half-submerged ship, which threatens some of the most unspoiled waters in the Mediterranean and a sanctuary for dolphins and other marine life.

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About 500,000 gallons of heavy fuel and other pollutants are in danger of leaking out of the ship, threatening the livelihoods of local fishermen and residents who depend on tourism.

"They need to get a move on. We are moving toward the tourist season," said Antonia Rum, a resident heading into the gathering of more than 200 people.

"Let's hope we are able to solve everything without pollution," said Giuseppe De Politi, a Giglio fisherman. "That's the main worry."

Concordia ran aground Jan. 13 when the captain deviated from his planned route and struck a reef, creating a huge gash that capsized the ship. More than 4,200 passengers and crew were on board. Seventeen bodies have been recovered, while 16 people are listed as missing, with one body not yet identified.

The gathering of residents came a day after Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's national civil protection agency, said it could take a full seven-to-10 months to remove the massive ship, which is 950 feet long and 115 feet wide. That means the damaged ship, or at least parts of it, will still be off the coast for most, if not all, of the summer tourist season.

One of the residents at the meeting, Fabio Agugliari, expressed the determination to defend the island and its "treasures." Another, Alvaro Andolfi, said residents are mainly demanding transparency from Gabrielli.

"We want him to tell us how it happened that it's going to take a year to remove this ship, what they are doing and how the plans to remove the fuel are proceeding," Andolfi told reporters after the meeting.

The harbor at Giglio, which usually accommodates dozens of private and tourist boats, is now off-limits to any vessels except rescue boats and two ferry companies that connect the island to the mainland.

Lawmaker Angelo Bonelli, with the Greens party, said a 10-month removal process was a huge time span in which oil, solvents and the corrosion of the ship could "provoke a real disaster."

"We have the impression that there is underestimation of the enormous environmental, touristic and economic damage that will take place if the ship stays in its place for more than a year," he was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

The prospects of a quick solution were further dampened Monday by bad weather, which prevented crews from starting to pump oil from the ship. Authorities set off another blast in an underwater compartment of the ship, hoping to find more bodies, but held off on removing fuel.

Despite the rough seas, other workers labored to collect tons of ship debris — chairs, furniture, luggage — floating in the surrounding waters or on the shore.

Experts say it will take a month to remove fuel from the 15 tanks that account for more than 80 percent of all the ship's oil. The next job would be to target the ship's engine room, which contains nearly 350 cubic meters of diesel, fuel and other lubricants.

Only once the fuel is pumped out can work begin on removing the ship, either floating it in one piece or cutting it up and towing it away. That operation will involve large barges, cranes and other commercial salvage equipment.

"They say there is not going to be any environmental damage, but we are not stupid. The damage to the environment is strong," said Riccardo Vicchianti, son of a Giglio resident. "If I think of just one cabin, it's like throwing a whole bar into the sea ... imagine a floating town!"

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