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Saturday January 20 6:28 PM ET
Boat Leaks Oil in Ecuador's Pristine Galapagos

By Amy Taxin

QUIT0, Ecuador (Reuters) - A boat carrying fuel to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands that ran aground four days ago is leaking oil into the ecologically sensitive waters near the famous islands, the government said on Saturday.

The spill has already affected animals including sea lions and pelicans and volunteers are on standby to clean up and rescue them, an ecologist said.

Adm. Gonzalo Vega, director of Ecuador's Merchant Marine in Guayaquil, said the oil spill began late on Friday when a pipe in the boat's machine room burst, fouling the water near the islands that boast unique marine and land creatures such as iguanas and giant tortoises.

He said a second and potentially more harmful leak occurred early on Saturday, when about 1,000 gallons of a heavy fuel called IFO 120 began to spill from the craft.

``That (the IFO 120) is the dangerous part. The worst thing that would happen is that the boat would burst entirely and it would all spill,'' he told Reuters. ``If we manage to unload the majority today, the situation will be under control.''

The Galapagos Islands, located 600 miles from the Ecuadorean shore, were visited by British naturalist Charles Darwin in 1835. His observations of island life led to the development of his theories on natural selection.

The Galapagos National Park preserves the creatures and their natural habitat, where they have evolved for thousands of years in isolation and with little human intervention.

The boat, named ``Jessica'', was carrying 160,000 gallons of diesel and about 80,000 gallons of IFO 120. It ran aground half a mile from the Galapagos' main port on San Cristobal Island on Tuesday.

It was on its way to service an Ecuadorean naval operation and a private tour boat operator, according to a government spokeswoman.

Protective Fence Set Up

The Ecuadorean Merchant Marines have controlled the leak by setting up a fence to trap the fuel and applying chemicals to neutralize it. They are currently unloading the fuel in the tanks that Jessica was carrying.

U.S. Coast Guard clean-up crews were to arrive late on Saturday and early on Sunday at the request of President Gustavo Noboa, the government said. The 10-person response team will focus on removing oil from the ship and provide advice on response and clean-up.

But sea lions, pelicans and blue-footed boobies, animals endemic to the islands, have already been affected by the spill, said Maria Eugenia Proano, representative of the Charles Darwin Scientific Station on San Cristobal Island.

``The biological situation is what most worries us and there has already been an impact,'' she told Reuters.

The station has trained groups of volunteers to go out and wash the animals to rid them of the fuel, which sticks to their feathers and skin, and evacuate them when necessary, she said.

This isn't the first time Galapagos has suffered an oil spill, Mario Garcia, director of Ecuador's Foundation for Ecologic Studies, told Reuters.

``In my opinion, there's a serious problem in Galapagos in everything that has to do with military and port control,'' he said. ``This isn't the first time there's been a diesel or fuel spill.''