Tourism is back on track but Santorini fears sea pollution

Residents, business people and organizations on Santorini are still waiting. Forty days since the cruise ship Sea Diamond, owned by the Cyprus-based Louis Group, sank offshore, they don’t know when the remaining diesel will be removed from the tanks of the shipwreck. The residents of Oia, in particular, are deeply concerned, because if oil from the capsized vessel enters the desalination plant that serves the entire island, the machinery will be destroyed, which could leave the most heavily visited part of the island without water. Meanwhile, the island is preparing for a major influx of tourists, perhaps the largest of recent years, with an estimated 1 million visitors expected on Santorini this year. Last Thursday morning, two cruise ships docked in the harbor of Santorini. The passengers disembarked to tour the island and went on to one of the most popular beaches. Everything seems to be back to normal, and it is only the barriers set up around the site of the shipwreck that give any indication of what happened shortly before Easter when the huge tanker capsized. «The initial concern has abated and tourism is going ahead normally,» Lambros Katsipis, a Santorini travel agent who also owns tour coaches, told Kathimerini. He takes it for granted that the fuel will be pumped off before the tourist season gets fully under way. But what if it isn’t? «Year after year, Santorini is one of the prime international destinations. Thousands of tourists visit it every year. But if someone arrives by ship and sees an oil slick in the caldera, there will be problems, even if it is far away from the beaches that people frequent.» The popular beaches of Perissa, Kamari and Perivolos are on the other side of the island, and are unaffected by pollution from the shipwreck. But the island’s image abroad is of great importance. If the fuel is not pumped off soon, it is highly likely that the oil slick will spread because the diesel continues to leak from the wreck. Vassilis Mamaloukas, an oceanographer and manager of the firm Environmental Protection Technique, which has undertaken the clean-up task, explained that while the wrecked ship had not stopped leaking oil, the pollution is under control on the surface. Soon anchors are to go in at greater depth to support the water barriers that have been set up around the wreck. This will enable the barrier to stay in place for longer without any risk of it being carried away by the waves. The Filia, a vessel owned by the Greek Marine Research Center ELKETHE, is in Santorini to collect samples, under orders from the Merchant Marine Ministry, «to monitor organic and inorganic pollution,» as ELKETHE President Giorgos Chronis told Kathimerini. Desalination plant may be at risk If there is a major leak and the diesel from the wreck penetrates the desalination plant in Oia, it will destroy the filters. «If they are destroyed, the plant will go out of operation, and we’ll have to order new filters from America or France, and that would take a long time. In the summer, we can meet the needs of Oia for three days,» Oia President Giorgos Halaris told Kathimerini. He explained that the plant desalinates 900-950 cubic meters of water a day, and which are consumed the same day during the peak summer season. The plant can store 3,500 cubic meters of water, a reserve that cannot last longer than just a few days. «You can’t imagine what it means to run out of water at a time when we have so many tourists,» said Halaris, who wants official information and assurances. «They tell us that they haven’t used chemicals in the clean-up process, but we want that confirmed in writing. And though I requested it two weeks ago, I have not received anything official from the ministry so that I can know what’s going on with the pumping and what the next steps will be.» Halaris added that the lack of information fosters rumors and suspicion. «There is no organized system of answering our questions and keeping the public informed. We are worried because we don’t know what is going on.»