updated 2/9/2012 3:20:01 PM ET 2012-02-09T20:20:01

The capsized Costa Concordia cruise liner has shifted 24 inches toward the open sea since it ran aground the Tuscan coast of Giglio island on Jan. 13, according to 26 days of monitoring by the University of Florence, Italy

Although researchers assured there is no immediate risk that the ship will roll from its precarious resting place, environment minister Corrado Clini admitted Wednesday that "the risk for a collapse is quite real."

"The more time passes, the weaker the hull becomes. We cannot guarantee that it has not been compromised already," Clini said during a hearing at the Italian Senate.

PHOTOS: The Concordia: Recounting a Disaster

Strong winds and rough seas are posing a serious threat for the 950 foot-long, 116 foot-wide, 114,500-ton ship, which sits on a 122-foot reef ledge. A few feet away, the sea floor drops off sharply to a depth of about 290 feet.

Plunging to the seabed would most likely cause the tanks to rupture and spill almost 500,000 gallons of heavy fuel into the island's pristine waters.

The island of Giglio lies within the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, and is home to more than 700 botanical and animal species including fin whales, sperm whales, dolphins, tuna, billfish and sharks.

Worsening weather makes it impossible to estimate when it will be possible to get rid of the fuel, which fills 17 different tanks.

WATCH VIDEO: As workers begin to extract fuel from the sunken Concordia, locals are worried that their pristine waters are in danger.

"They are saying tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. It seems to me that the day the fuel is finally pumped up is quite far away," former environment minister Altero Matteoli said during the Senate hearing.

Five of the six forward fuel tanks, which are estimated to hold 67 percent of the ship's oil, have now been equipped with seals.

These tanks will be the first to be treated by the technicians of the Dutch company Smit and the Italian company Neri. They will use vapor to warm the oil and make it more fluid to siphon out. As the fuel is extracted, tanks will be filled with water to keep the ship's balance.

Following that operation, the work will focus on nine other tanks which contain about 17 percent of the fuel. The remaining 16 percent lies in two tanks in the engine's room.

"This is the most unreachable area of the ship, and we are still studying how to get there," Franco Gabrielli, the head of the Civil Protection Authority, told the Senate.

The Concordia carries other potentially dangerous materials. Among the various pollutants, it contains seven tanks filled with 75 gallons of acetylene, over 1,300 pounds of grease, 650 pounds of paint, 1 ton of sodium hypochlorite and 13 gallons of insecticide. Not to mention the food used to feed a floating city of more than 4,200 people.

"The situation is extremely serious. We ask the environment ministry to take any possible measure to preserve Giglio's precious and fragile environment. Even the smallest piece of waste has to be removed," Alessandra Motola Molfino, president of Italy's national conservation group, Italia Nostra, told Discovery News.

She was echoed by geologist and environmentalist Mario Tozzi:

"Just one cubic inch of this fuel oil, known as Ifo 380, can kill life in one cubic foot of water. If it spills out, the island of Giglio can be declared dead," he said.

According to Gabrielli, tests for toxic substances are "negative so far."

He added that no time estimate can be provided for the defueling operation, although it is likely that 15 tanks will be emptied by the end of March.

Various solutions to prevent the ship from plunging into the sea are being evaluated at the moment, including chaining the ship to the reef, and using an innovative technology to pump out the fuel.

NEWS: Warnings of Ecological Timebomb After Italy Ship Wreck

"Our patented method uses an oil-based chemical rather than vapor to make the fuel fluid and pump it up. The technology reduces the steam-out time by half the time or lower," Marcello Ferrara, chairman at ITW, Innovative Technologies Worldwide, told Discovery News.

"Other advantages are that the fuel oil can be reused and reprocessed rather than disposed of," Ferrara said.

He admitted that so far nobody has approached his company to evaluate the possible advantages of the technology.

"We are now dealing with the ship operator Costa Crociere. Several problems, including the ship's removal, have to be discussed," environment minister Clini said.

The ship is set to remain at sea for nearly a year. Experts estimate that seven months are necessary for the wreck's removal in case it is cut into pieces.

"More than 10 months are required to remove the ship in its entirety. A very complex operation involves the submerged hull," Gabrielli said.

Seventeen people were confirmed killed in the accident and 15 remain missing. Gabrielli believes that some the 15 missing bodies are likely in that part of the hull and seabed.

"As the ship began to tilt, some people were thrust backward," Gabrielli said.

Passengers and crew who survived the collision have been called by judge Valeria Montesarchio to testify at a hearing on March 3 in Grosseto.

Since 4,228 people survived the accident, the event will not take place in a court, but at a theater in Grosseto.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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