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France's Atlantic coast is facing a significant ecological catastrophe from an oil spill that is washing up on beaches and rocky coastlines, Environment Minister Dominique Voynet said Sunday.

The thick, foul-smelling oil, with the consistency of chewing gum, washed up on the coast stretching from northwestern Brittany to the Vendee region, an area famed for its beaches and oyster farms.

Voynet, who visited the region Sunday, told France Info radio that it was too early yet to fully assess the effects of the spill, which happened after a 24-year-old tanker broke apart Dec. 12 and sank off the coast of Brittany.

The Maltese-registered tanker, Erika, poured 3 million gallons of oil into the sea when it broke in two. The Franco-Belgian oil group TotalFina had chartered the tanker to carry refined heavy oil from Rotterdam to Leghorn, Italy.

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