Oil leaking from an Antarctic cruise ship has brought into dramatic focus the issue of whether the frigid but fragile environment should play host to a growing tourism trade, scientists say.

The Argentine ship Bahia Paraiso caused a major oil spill when it struck a rock Jan. 28 following a tourist stop at the National Science Foundation's Palmer Base Research Center on the Antarctic Penninsula. The 350 people aboard the Bahia Paraiso were not injured, but scientists said the leaking oil is wreaking havoc with penguins and other Antarctic wildlife.In a phone call from Palmer station, Dr. Ted De Laca, chief scientist for NSF's polar division, Friday described the ship's visit as "strictly tourism" and said it "had nothing to do with policy issues."

According to De Laca, the environmental impact of tourism was one of the topics discussed by the visitors from five nations during their tour of the science center. Ironically, one of the scenarios "hotly debated" just hours before the Bahia Pariaso went down was the consequences of a ship sinking and spilling oil, he said.

When the 435-foot ship plowed into a rock and tilted at a precarious angle in the icy waters, the 26 NSF scientists and staff helped rescue passengers with their open boats and outboard motors. The evacuation was so rushed that most tourists left behind all their possessions.

"This is a very remote area . . . It is very fortunate for the people on the ship they were close to the station," said De Laca, who said if the accident happened a few miles up the coast beyond the reach of the NSF boats the mishap "would have been a disaster."

"This is a danger that is going to be increasing as the number of outsiders come to Antarctica and the number of tours surely is increasing," said Jack Renirie, an NSF spokesman in Washington, who noted three tour ships are currently in port in Chile awaiting the go-ahead to travel to Palmer Station.

Renirie said the NSF center has had as many as 500 tourists a week. According to the spokesman, the safety exercised by the tour ships varies considerably.

"Some of them are are careful and some of them are kind of careless," he said.

De Laca commented: "Working in Antarctica is a very dangerous business. The U.S. (government) has done an outstanding job of it and is largely capable. Tourist organizations that have gotten in trouble and are not nearly so well equipped to handle (Antarctic conditions) have had to to rely on government back-up."

De Laca would not comment on what caused the latest accident, but indicated there may be legal action against the ship's operators.

Two other tourism vessels were near the Palmer station when the accident occurred, and De Laca gave their crews credit for helping to return the stranded passengers to Argentina.

But he added: "I hope as a result of this particular accident there would be a thorough reconsideration of issues related to non-government groups working in Antarctica and looking at the impact of tourism on the environment, as well as its endangerment to the lives of people coming down."

De Laca said there is no way to evaluate the long-term impact of the spill, which officials say could involve up to 250,000 gallons of oil, on the wildlife surrounding the NSF research center.

However, the scientist noted it generally takes longer for substances to decompose in the Antarctic than in warmer regions, and food chains in colder climates tend to be more easily disrupted.

"Everything right now is worrisome," he said.