Environmental disaster has been averted for now but France is taking no risks after a tanker carrying thousands of tons of toxic chemicals sank off the Normandy coast, Reuters reported President Jacques Chirac as saying. Visiting an emergency operations center in Cherbourg, northwestern France, Chirac said information was still being gathered on how best to recover the chemicals that officials said were already leaking from the Italian tanker Ievoli Sun, which sank in the English Channel on Tuesday. "It's escaping in bursts," Cherbourg maritime captain Jean-Francois Choquart said. "It has to be styrene that has escaped from a forward storage tank
," added Christian Balmes, Shell France managing director, referring to the hydrocarbon -- a recognized pollutant -- used for making synthetic plastics.
The Ievoli Sun, chartered by Shell among other companies, had 4,000 tons of the chemical on board. TV footage showed clouds of noxious white vapor swirling from the waves. Balmes told reporters he was worried about the dangers linked to the products the Ievoli Sun was carrying. Officials threw a six km (four miles) exclusion zone around the site.
But Chirac downplayed ecological fears for the time being.
"As things stand it seems the serious dangers have been avoided, but this is an area where one can never be too careful," he told reporters after meeting regional officials.
"We have to carry out all the necessary tests at the scene in order to say exactly what is occurring," he added.
A French patrol boat took air and water samples from the surface and at depth for marine and meteorological analysis. Results are due on Thursday.
Owned by Italian firm Marnavi, the 11-year-old Ievoli Sun radioed for help on Monday with a hole in its double hull after sailing from the British port of Fawley for Bar in Yugoslavia.
A French tug was towing the 114-meter-long (376 feet) tanker towards Cherbourg when it started sinking on Tuesday morning.
The crisis comes less than a year after Maltese-registered tanker Erika went down off northwestern France last December, spewing up to 15,000 tons of oil onto the Brittany coast.
The sonar-equipped minesweeper Le Cephee arrived at the scene before dawn on Wednesday. Officials said it had detected a stench probably from the styrene leaking from the Ievoli Sun.
Surveillance flights on Tuesday reported an iridescent film 700 by 10 meters (yards) spreading from the wreck site.