20 years ago, the “Prestige” oil spill soiled the coasts of Spain

Volunteers try to clean up Muxia beach in northwestern Spain, polluted by the Prestige oil spill on December 1, 2002 (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP / Archives)

Twenty years ago, the “Prestige” oil tanker sank off Galicia, in the north-west of Spain, carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil. The beginning of one of the worst oil spills in European history.

Fuel oil “everywhere”, “black” beaches and fishermen “forced to stop” … In Spain, the Prestige drama created “a real shock”, still “omnipresent” in memories, says Alberto Blanco, former mayor of Muxia, a village on the front line in the face of disaster, he told AFP.

It was offshore from this city of 4,000 souls located west of A Coruña that the Liberian oil tanker made a distress call on November 13, 2002, after the appearance of a breach several meters long in its side during a storm.

“The boat was in poor condition, with waves six to eight meters high,” says Blanco, who remembers rushing ashore as soon as the accident was announced to see the damage. The ship “was very close to the coast, the situation was serious”.

On November 14, the decision was made to evacuate almost the entire crew. The “Prestige”, a monohull boat belonging to a family of Greek shipowners domiciled in Liberia, but flying the flag of the Bahamas, begins to pour heavy fuel oil into the ocean.

A seagull soaked in fuel from the Prestige oil spill December 2, 2002 on the beach of Lires, in north-western Spain
A seagull soaked in fuel from the Prestige oil spill on December 2, 2002 on the beach of Lires in northwestern Spain (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP / Archives)

Thinking of eliminating the danger, the public authorities therefore decided to have the ship towed offshore, first to the north-west, then to the south, instead of approaching a port to contain the leak. A controversial choice as the storm continues.

After six days adrift, the ship finally broke in two on November 19, 270 kilometers from the Spanish coast, and sank in the cold waters of the Atlantic at a depth of 3,500 meters, causing the most serious oil spill in the history of ‘ Iberian. Peninsula.

Judicial marathon

“The disaster was immense”, with damage “in Spain, but also in Portugal and France”, where countless pancakes in oil were found, from the coast of Aquitaine to Brittany, remembers Sara del Río, head of research by Greenpeace Spain.

Volunteers evacuate oil fields from Muxia beach in northwest Spain, hit by the Prestige oil spill on November 23, 2002
Volunteers evacuate oil fields from Muxia beach in northwest Spain, which was hit by the Prestige oil spill on November 23, 2002 (CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP / Archives)

According to available estimates, 63,000 tons of fuel oil spilled into the ocean, littering 2,900 kilometers of coastline. Nearly 200,000 seabirds have also died, despite the intervention of tens of thousands of volunteers.

“The rocks were covered with fuel oil, even the beaches. Cleaning them was very difficult, because it was viscous and sticky, and the fuel oil kept coming back with the tides. It gave a feeling of anger and helplessness,” recalls Alberto Blanco, who evokes an “endless struggle”.

This fight, after long months of cleaning, has taken a legal turn. After a long standstill, in 2016 the Spanish courts sentenced the Greek captain of the tanker to two years in prison, at the time under medical treatment and driving an inexperienced crew.

Declared civilly responsible, the Liberian shipowner and the British insurer of the boat were sentenced to compensate 1.5 billion euros, largely to the Spanish state, having received from his side the French state, about 60 million euros.

Volunteers clean up a beach contaminated by the Prestige oil spill in Nemina, northwest Spain, November 30, 2002
Volunteers clean up a beach contaminated by the Prestige oil spill in Nemina, northwest Spain on November 30, 2002 (CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP / Archives)

A decision welcomed by the associations, which nevertheless deplored the absence of political leaders in the dock, despite the decisions deemed “disastrous” by the right-wing government of José María Aznar and by the regional authorities of Galicia.

“There were thoughtless choices, such as moving the boat farther instead of bringing it closer to a port (…) The oil spill then spread to become uncontrollable,” says Sara del Río. , for which “all the lessons (of the disaster) have not been learned”.

Ban on single-hull oil tankers off the coast of the EU, precise protocols in case of sinking, strengthening of inspections: following the sinking of the “Prestige”, several important decisions have been taken to improve the safety of the transport of dangerous products.

But these measures have not completely eliminated the risk of a new oil spill.

“There is always the possibility that a disaster like that of the” Prestige “will repeat itself. Firstly because oil tankers are still in poor condition, and secondly because more and more tankers are being transported. Fossil fuels by sea”, recalls the head of Greenpeace.

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