Friday, 11 February 2011

The Prestige Oil Disaster

On November 13th 2002, the Liberian owned tanker, The Prestige, ran into trouble in heavy weather off the coast of Galicia. The 240 metre single-hulled ship had burst one its tanks and was starting to leak oil. The ships Greek captain called the Spanish authorities for aid but instead of the expected tow-in he was told to steer away from the coast and head North West. Similar responses were sent out from Spanish and Portuguese coastal authorities who were keen to see the foundering tanker kept away from their shores. This ship got into serious trouble on the sixth day of drifting when a 40 ft section of the hull came away; she split in two that afternoon spilling a huge amount of her 85,000 m³ cargo of oil into the Atlantic 250km from the coast of Galicia. The Prestige sank entirely later that day in over 3000 metres of water starting Spain's worst environmental disaster.
The decision to take the ship away from the coast was not a good one; by this time 5000 tons of fuel was already spilt and the strong westerly winds that are prevalent in the region at this time of year were already pushing a huge slick of oil towards the Galician coastline. Galicia is one of Spain's most remote regions and the population is very much coast dwelling with a huge portion of the areas income coming from the sea - renowned as an extremely rich fishing ground, the area is also home to coral, sharks and thousands of seas birds. The oil hit Galicia in droves; thousands of acres of beach were covered in oil with thousands of dead puffins and razorbills (amongst other birds and fish) washed up on the regions shores. With the wreck still leaking 125 tons of its cargo everyday, the clean up operation would have to get under way swiftly. 6000 seaman and an estimated 2500 boats were stuck in port in the region which includes Vigo, Europe's largest fishing port. The huge fishing industry was crippled overnight - and it wasn't just the fishermen who were affected, distributors and vendors saw their livelihood shattered too.
The clean up operation was huge with a lot of volunteers lending their weight to the effort. Thousands of tons of oil were removed from beaches and aid was provided for hundreds of birds covered in the Prestige's noxious cargo. Estimates reckon that the disaster could cost somewhere in the region of EUR5million in the ten years following the spill. It was six months until the fishing fleets dropped their nets again and locals still maintain that old fishing spots they frequented before the disaster are now completely barren.
In the wake of the accident, huge international pressure has raised many questions about the safety level of oil tankers. 80% of the Prestige's 77,000 ton cargo was lost from the ship and concerns about its safety were raised before the voyage. In the wake of the incident many have called for the ban of single-hulled tankers, the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) called for their phasing out to be brought forward and the European Commission did exactly that by moving the date forward from 2015 to 2005. Pressure has also come from within Spain about the governments handling of the crisis; it took almost a year for the Spanish authorities to finally tell the public exactly how much oil was spilt. Galician Environmental movement "Nunca Mais" (Galician for "Never Again") felt the government tried to cover up the scale of the damage and exactly a year after the tragedy, they led a march in Santiago de Compostela under the banner "We continue to demand solutions and justice".
The effects of the disaster not only affected the Galician coast - oil was washed up in Portugal, on the beaches of Normandy and even England's south cast did not escape unscathed. Such is the quantity of oil contained in tankers that that a spill can have catastrophic affects - with thousands of single hulled tankers still in operation there are fears that we're endangering our environment unnecessarily
Mike McDougall has five years experience working as a travel writer and marketeer. He is currenlty working to provide additional content for Babylon-idiomas, a Spanish language school with an excellent presence in Spain and Latin America.
This work is covered by a <creative commons licence