High winds and stormy seas prevented French surveillance craft approaching the sunken Italian tanker Ievoli Sun to probe for pollution from its toxic cargo. A sonar-equipped minesweeper due to examine the wreck and an observation plane and helicopter meant to track pollution slicks from Tuesday's Channel shipwreck stayed in port at Cherbourg while smaller boats tried to survey the area.
Maritime authorities were due to announce later the first results of tests on water samples taken on Wednesday.
"Given these weather conditions, the minesweeper Le Cephee, which returned to Cherbourg last night, could not leave port this morning," Lieutenant Bertrand Bonneau, spokesman for the port's maritime authority, said. "The plane and helicopter couldn't take off either," he added. The two smaller boats had to keep a safe distance from the sinking site, where foul-smelling clouds of noxious white vapor have been rising from the churning waters. The ship's cargo -- 4,000 tons of styrene, a toxic hydrocarbon used in making plastics, plus 2,000 tons of other chemicals -- has been leaking but officials have no information about exactly which fluids and how much have escaped.
The two smaller ships could hardly make up for the missing surveillance craft meant to probe the hulk lying 70 meters (yards) below one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
"They can hardly see anything, especially since these products are colorless," Bonneau said.
"If there were leaks yesterday, there is no reason why they would have stopped today. The only change would be that they would be dispersed more quickly today by the wind," He added.
One large slick measuring nine km (5.6 miles) by 300 meters (yards) was spotted on Wednesday near the site, which is about 20 km (12.4 miles) north of the Channel Islands.
The Ievoli Sun, which sank on Tuesday as a tug was towing it towards Cherbourg, went down near an underwater canyon Britain
has used to dump radioactive waste and World War Two ammunition.
The environmental group Green peace, which has surveyed the area as part of its anti-pollution campaigns, offered its help. "We have a team ready, with the necessary material and a robot equipped with two very sophisticated cameras," a spokesman said.
Officials have thrown a six-km (four miles) exclusion zone around the site and France has asked its EU partners to stop ships carrying environmentally risky cargoes from using the North Sea-Channel route until the weekend. -(Reuters)