MADRID, Spain (AP) – A damaged tanker carrying more than 20 million gallons of fuel oil broke in two off northwest Spain and sank yesterday, threatening an environmental disaster.

The Bahamas-flagged Prestige vanished into the ocean at midday, said Lars Walder, a spokesman for the Dutch salvage company SMIT. The ship’s oil containers seemed to remain intact, moderating spill damage, but the toxic fuel was likely to seep out eventually, he said. An environmentalist warned the wreckage would be like a “time bomb” on the ocean floor, some 11,800 feet down.

If the ship lost its entire cargo of fuel oil, the spill would be nearly twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Some 10.92 million gallons of crude oil were lost from the Valdez.

“We can say goodbye to the ship and its cargo,” Walder said.

The tanker ruptured last Wednesday during a storm, and was towed some 150 miles out to sea. The salvage company estimated it lost between 1.3 million and 2.6 million gallons of fuel. The crew was airlifted to safety last week.

The spill caused friction between Portugal and Spain, which disagreed over who was responsible for the clean-up. Prevailing winds put Spain’s coast at a greater risk for damage from the spill.

Spanish beaches were mired in oil and scores of animals were covered in sludge. Fishing was prohibited, putting hundreds out of work. The spill threatened some of the region’s richest fishing grounds.

Fuel oil, a heavy, viscous blend gathered from the bottom of tanks at the end of the refining process, can be far more toxic and difficult to clean up than crude oil, experts said.

“We hope that the sunken part does not spill its fuel. But still it’s a time bomb at the bottom of the sea,” said Maria Jose Caballero, who leads the coastal protection project for Greenpeace in Spain.

The best hope for the environment is for the tanks to hold in the chilly waters, said Unni Einemo, senior editor at Bunkerworld, a London-based news service for the marine fuels industry.

“If it sinks into cold water, this stuff solidifies so much that it basically stays there,” she said.

The Prestige, owned by Mare Shipping Inc., of the Bahamas, was bound for Singapore when the storm hit. The American Bureau of Shipping, a Houston-based registration company that makes sure shipping papers are in order, said the Prestige was up to date with its inspections.

The vessel, built in 1976, is operated by the Greece-based Universe Maritime, Ltd. The ship’s last annual survey was carried out in Dubai in May, and a full drydock inspection was carried out in China in May 2001, ABS said.

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