Athens (AFP) - Greece's merchant marine minister defended on Thursday the government's response to an oil spill that has spread across beaches near Athens following criticism from environmentalists and calls for his resignation.
Panagiotis Kouroublis said ecological damage from the spill is limited and conditions are getting better.
"Day by day the situation is improving," the minister told a news conference after touring areas across the Saronic Gulf affected by the sinking of the tanker Agia Zoni II early on Sunday.
"One doesn't see mass destruction among birds and fish," Kouroublis said, adding that around 20 anti-pollution vessels had been assigned to the clean-up task, expected to take close to a month.
"In 25-30 days the (situation) will have changed completely," the minister said. "A giant effort is under way."
Main opposition New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis had earlier said that Kouroublis, who was attending a shipping conference in London as the incident unfolded and did not return until Thursday, had to go.
"The prime minister should accept his resignation," Mitsotakis said, as Kouroublis claimed that "the entire affair will be forgotten in a few days."
Kouroublis said the tanker sank in only 15 minutes and that a coastguard anti-pollution ship was in the area within three hours.
Anti-pollution barriers were erected six hours after the sinking, but the oil apparently coagulated and slipped away under the surface of the sea, the minister said.
"We too were wondering how the leak occurred as barriers were in place," he said.
Environmental groups were scathing in their criticism of the government's response.
"This (oil) leak happened near the country's biggest harbour, just miles away from the operation centre of the ministry tasked with addressing such disasters," Dimitris Ibrahim, campaign director at Greenpeace Greece, told news portal in.gr.
Adding insult to injury, the amount of oil in question was "relatively small," Ibrahim said.
WWF Greece was likewise incredulous that "a country with heavy tanker traffic has proven unable to protect its maritime wealth and beaches from an initially small-scale incident."
"Clearly, this crash test of readiness was a failed one," WWF Greece general manager Dimitris Karavelas later told Skai TV.
"And we have no idea what is happening on the seabed," he said.
The oil spill on Sunday initially compromised beaches just on the island of Salamis and officials were confident that it could be contained given mild wind conditions.
But by Thursday, parts of the slick had drifted miles away to the affluent coastal Athens suburb of Glyfada and was threatening the popular beaches of Voula and Vouliagmeni.
"Nobody thought the slick would reach us," Glyfada mayor Yiorgos Papanikolaou told Skai TV.
"If someone had warned us even on Tuesday, we would have taken precautions," said Papanikolaou.
"We must act quickly to prevent long-term damage,"
At beaches along the coast, clean-up crews on Thursday were collecting blackened sand and dumping it in tanker trucks.
Local mayors have issued beach warnings and fishermen have been advised to avoid the area at present.
The European Union has contributed an anti-pollution ship.
The 45-year-old vessel Agia Zoni II sank on Sunday near the island of Salamis while under anchor. The cause is still unknown.
"How can a ship sink in the harbour in mild conditions?" wondered Mitsotakis.
The Greek-flagged tanker was carrying around 2,500 tonnes of fuel.
The only people on board at the time, the tanker's captain and chief engineer, were charged with negligence and released pending trial.
The ship's owners said the tanker was fully seaworthy and all its documentation was in order.
An operation is under way to drain the fuel remaining on board.