Watch CBSN Live

France's Black Tide

Soldiers, firemen and volunteers from around the world have been fighting for weeks in what sometimes seems like a losing battle. The thick black tide congeals along the shore like cold lava. It clings to the rocks, clings to the emergency crews, clings to wildlife and stubbornly refuses to go away, reports CBS News Correspondent Tom Fenton.

"It's everywhere, everywhere. On the French coast, on the Atlantic, you can find such petrol everywhere." says French Army Lt. Christian Baroux, standing amid the muck.

When the dilapidated, Maltese registered tanker Erika broke apart off the French coast last month, experts hoped the oil spill would be contained. But a huge storm brought the black tide ashore on Christmas Day.

Two hundred and fifty miles of once pristine tourist beach, rugged coves and rich fishing grounds have been ruined by thousands of tons of heavy oil. The cleanup will take months, if not years.

Most of the work has to be done by hand with buckets and shovels. It is backbreaking work and it seems to be never-ending. The workers have been trying to clean up one section beach for three weeks now. But each time a new tide comes ashore, it brings with it more of the sticky mess.

The tides also bring in more evidence of the staggering cost to wildlife. The beach is littered with clumps of goo barely recognizable as seabirds.

Birds found still alive are taken to rescue centers. One of them was set up with the help of Barbara Callahan, a specialist from California's International Bird Rescue and Research Center. "For many of these birds, it's too late, they are very dehydrated, very malnourished. Then when hypothermia sets in, that's the big killer," she says.

This catastrophe has been even more devastating for wildlife than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Ninety percent of these birds affected by the Erika's spill will not survive.

The black tide will eventually ebb away and years later when the damage done by man is finally repaired by nature, the seabirds and the tourists may once again return.

View CBS News In