Concordia Wreck at Risk of Collapse, Spilling

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Clean up operations are an ongoing, long process at the site of the Concordia wreck off the Tuscan coast.
Rossella Lorenzi

THE GIST

- The shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise liner has shifted 24 inches since it ran aground.

- The ship is dangerously close to reaching the point in the sea floor where it drops off to a depth of 290 feet.

- Environmentalists are calling for a quick removal of the fuel and the wreck, but the Costa Concordia is set to remain at sea for nearly a year.

The capsized Costa Concordia cruise liner has shifted 24 inches toward the open sea since it ran aground the Tuscan coast of Giglio island on Jan. 13, according to 26 days of monitoring by the University of Florence, Italy

Although researchers assured there is no immediate risk that the ship will roll from its precarious resting place, environment minister Corrado Clini admitted Wednesday that "the risk for a collapse is quite real."

"The more time passes, the weaker the hull becomes. We cannot guarantee that it has not been compromised already," Clini said during a hearing at the Italian Senate.

PHOTOS: The Concordia: Recounting a Disaster

Strong winds and rough seas are posing a serious threat for the 950 foot-long, 116 foot-wide, 114,500-ton ship, which sits on a 122-foot reef ledge. A few feet away, the sea floor drops off sharply to a depth of about 290 feet.

Plunging to the seabed would most likely cause the tanks to rupture and spill almost 500,000 gallons of heavy fuel into the island's pristine waters.

The island of Giglio lies within the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, and is home to more than 700 botanical and animal species including fin whales, sperm whales, dolphins, tuna, billfish and sharks.

Worsening weather makes it impossible to estimate when it will be possible to get rid of the fuel, which fills 17 different tanks.

"They are saying tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. It seems to me that the day the fuel is finally pumped up is quite far away," former environment minister Altero Matteoli said during the Senate hearing.

Five of the six forward fuel tanks, which are estimated to hold 67 percent of the ship's oil, have now been equipped with seals.

These tanks will be the first to be treated by the technicians of the Dutch company Smit and the Italian company Neri. They will use vapor to warm the oil and make it more fluid to siphon out. As the fuel is extracted, tanks will be filled with water to keep the ship's balance.

Following that operation, the work will focus on nine other tanks which contain about 17 percent of the fuel. The remaining 16 percent lies in two tanks in the engine's room.