The Prestige Oil Spill

Spain: Black Waters, Dirty Hands

The ecological consequences of the Prestige oil spill
A clean-up volunteer holds up a puffin killed by oil from the Prestige in Trasierra, Spain, Dec. 28, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

It is unanimously regarded as the greatest ecological catastrophe ever to befall Spain. On Nov. 13, the vessel Prestige began to list 31 miles off the Galician coast of northwest Spain, with 77,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil in its hold. Its Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, contacted authorities and asked that the ship be led toward a port of refuge where the cargo could be transferred to another tanker. Instead, Spanish maritime authorities decided, against the advice of environmentalists and Galician fishermen, to tow the tanker farther out to sea. But the Prestige was already breaking apart in the rough waters, spilling 20,000 tons of fuel oil onto Spanish beaches.

On Nov. 19, after breaking in half, the Prestige finally sank with more than 50,000 metric tons of fuel oil in its hull, coming to rest 2.2 miles beneath the surface. These waters are considered Europe’s richest fishing area, and bring in about 125 million euros in revenue annually. So far, more than 550 miles of Spain’s coastline has been polluted, and each day, 125 tons of fuel oil seep from the sunken tanker into the Atlantic. According to experts, at this rate it will take three years for all of the ship’s oil to empty into the ocean.

“How is it possible that the authorities didn’t draw up a plan to protect the estuary of Arousa?” remarked an editorial from El Mundo (Dec. 2), adding, “Why weren’t more floating barriers put in place to prevent the fuel from reaching the coast? Where are the material and human resources that the government has promised to provide?”

On Dec. 12, La Vanguardia quoted a boy, Dario, who lives in the polluted area: “In Muxia, our village, you cannot walk. You are glued and cannot go anywhere,” he said. An editorial in El País that same day observed, “Public opinion doesn’t mainly reproach the government for making the wrong decisions, but for being incapable of explaining who, when, and why those decisions were taken.”

Following massive demonstrations in Galician cities in December, the government ordered the army to clean up the coast and promised financial aid to affected families. It also began to push for immediate legislation in the European Union mandating the immediate use of oil tankers with fortified double hulls in European waters. Current E.U. rules call for phasing out single-hulled tankers by 2015.

The Prestige’s tangled, multinational web of ownership and registry has raised debate about responsibility for the damages. “The European Commission has responded to the tragedy by pushing for tougher maritime transport legislation,” remarked El País (Dec. 5). “But it doesn’t seem capable of promoting...the ecological reorientation of fiscal policy or the common regulations about civil responsibility for environmental damage.”