AS threats to the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco from a huge black tide of oil appear to be receding, an international controversy is building over intervention rights in supertanker mishaps. A two-week-old oil spill from an Iranian supertanker, the Khark 5, still menaced important fishing and tourist industries on Morocco's Atlantic coast yesterday. Slow response to the incident is focusing attention on the need for better regional anti-spill intervention measures, as well as better international regulation for addressing such accidents.
Just as officials of the United States government came under heavy criticism last March for moving too slowly against the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska, the Moroccan government has been hit domestically and internationally for its delayed and often ambiguous response to the huge spill.
At the same time, several European officials, including French Environmental Secretary Brice Lalonde, are proposing stronger international laws to allow nations to intervene when disabled ships in international waters pose a potentially serious environmental threat.
The spill was touched off Dec. 19 when the Khark 5, transporting 284,000 tons of Iranian light crude, caught fire and was abandoned by its crew. The tanker quickly lost 70,000 tons of its cargo - about twice as much as that spilled by the Valdez - but not until last weekend did Moroccan officials call in French, British, Spanish, and other European cleanup specialists.
While Moroccan intervention teams, aided by experts from Europe and the US, are closely watching weather conditions to see if what is now a ``chocolate mousse'' might still hit land, the Khark 5 is being towed south toward the Cape Verde Islands, where salvagers hope to pump out its remaining cargo and repair the ship. Many observers, however, worry that the tanker is so damaged that it could split and spill more than 200,000 tons of crude into the ocean.
Some international oil accident experts say the Khark 5 is a case in point for improving regional intervention preparedness. ``There is really no coordination along this section of the Atlantic,'' says Lucien Laubier, chief scientific adviser with IFREMER, the French Institute for Ocean Development.
``After some tragic accidents, the North Sea countries are now well-coordinated to intervene,'' and similar efforts are being made in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, says Mr. Laubier. ``Things are improving, but this accident proves much more is needed.'' He says many African coastal countries have little more than buckets and shovels for combatting spills.
Morocco will face a ``long and costly cleanup process'' if the ``chocolate mousse'' - a term coined to describe the frothy mixture that hit France's Brittany coast in 1978 following the Amoco Cadiz accident - reaches its shores. Laubier says only manual cleaning operations would be effective at that point.
The Dutch company charged with salvaging the Khark's remaining cargo says it could have acted sooner if it had been allowed to tug the tanker into calm waters, but it says both Morocco and Spain denied its request.
On the other hand, some experts insist that part of the delay in addressing the Khark 5 accident was caused by ``bargaining'' among the tanker's owner, the Iranian National Oil Company, the salvaging company, and the tanker's insurers. Mr. Lalonde says a ``legal void'' for addressing such accidents in international waters must be addressed. He said he would take up the issue with the 12 members of the European Community.