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Long-delayed fuel removal begins on sunken liner

ROME - Underwater pumping operations began yesterday to remove some of the 500,000 gallons of fuel aboard the Costa Concordia, officials said, nearly a month after the cruise ship ran aground off Tuscany.

After nearly two weeks of delays because of rough seas and bad weather, the pumping got underway on the first of 15 tanks that are believed to hold around 84 percent of the fuel on board, Italy’s civil protection department said.

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Officials say it will take 28 consecutive days of pumping to empty the tanks.

Dutch shipwreck salvage firm Smit is overseeing the operation, along with an Italian partner.

The fuel extraction process involves fixing valves on the underwater fuel tanks, one on top, one on bottom. Hoses are attached to the valves and as the oil is sucked out of the upper hose, sea water is pumped in to fill the vacuum via the lower hose.

“We expect the next five days to be good weather, and we will work 24 hours a day to pump out the fuel,’’ said Bart Huizing, Smit’s salvage master. He said operations would initially focus on the six tanks in the front part of the ship where 62 to 65 percent of the fuel is located.

Ever since the Concordia ran aground Jan. 13, fears have swirled about fuel leaks and resulting contamination of the pristine waters off the tiny island of Giglio, which form part of a protected sanctuary for dolphins, whales, and porpoises. There have been no reports of serious leaks.

The Concordia slammed into a reef off Giglio after the captain deviated from the ship’s planned course in an apparent stunt. Passengers have said the captain then delayed sounding the evacuation alarm until the ship had capsized so much that lifeboats on one side couldn’t be lowered.

About 4,200 passengers and crew escaped, but 17 bodies have been found and another 15 people remain missing and are presumed dead.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, is under house arrest, accused of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated. He has said the reef wasn’t marked on his nautical charts.

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