Spain’s biggest environmental disaster: the Prestige oil spill 20 years later

After finishing his work day on November 13, 2002, Javier Sar, a sailor for 20 years in the Spanish region of Galicia, was in a bar with his colleagues.

They had heard the news on the radio while fishing that day. One of the boats in the Finisterre corridor was having problems. Nothing too weird.

No one could have predicted that this seemingly manageable event would turn into the worst ecological disaster in Spain’s history.

Never before had 63,000 tons of heavy fuel oil washed up on the coasts of the north of the Iberian country, ending up creating 2,000 kilometers of a contaminated zone that stretches from Portugal to Spain and France.

Twenty years ago, however, on the night of November 13, all was calm.

The situation quickly becomes chaotic

It was early in the morning — just two hours into his shift — when a frightened colleague woke Javier up. The smell of diesel was overpowering.

Thinking it was a leak from their own ship, the two sailors went down to the engine room, but as they walked down the corridors they noticed that the smell was no longer so strong.

It didn’t come from his ship, it came from the sea.

“We didn’t know anything about what was going on. I couldn’t imagine that it was the tanker that a few hours ago was 27 (nautical) miles away and in trouble, but we started to connect the dots,” Sar. he told Euronews.

“We heard the tugboats talking on a radio channel, and then we realized. The ship was practically on the coast of Muxía.”

That tanker was the Prestige. The 243 meter long ship was out of control with 27 crew on board. The strong storm had caused a leak, which tilted the ship at 45 degrees and the oil it was transporting began to seep into the sea.

Shortly after, Sar received a call from the Galician Minister of Fisheries – the local authorities were worried.

What is the situation,” he asked.

“Chaotic. The ship (is sinking) off the coast and we’re just about to see what’s going to happen,” Sar told him.

“A Black Future”

The Prestige was a 26-year-old single-hull vessel that had just received its certificate of navigation from the US classifier ABS after a refit in China.

Experts who studied the case said the ship suffered a hull failure in the same section where it was repaired.

After rescuing most of the crew on board — the captain and a couple of other sailors remained inside the ship to help tow it — the authorities decided to move it away from the shore and, with the help of tugboats, pulled it out. to the sea

“It was a catastrophe that could have been reduced to a few kilometers from the coast, but the drifting of the ship caused almost 2,000 kilometers of pollution, making it a continent-wide catastrophe,” said Greenpeace spokesman Manoel Santos.

The decision was taken by the then Minister of Public Works, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, who ordered the ship to be towed from the coast to the north, which worried the French and British authorities.

The crisis cabinet had been in meetings since November 14, and several options were put on the table.

The cabinet even considered the possibility of bombing the tanker with fighters before it sank, according to Defense Minister Federico Trillo.

“No one among the people who work at sea in Galicia supported moving the ship away. That was maximizing the catastrophe,” Santos pointed out, when talking about the mistakes in the management of the crisis.

“There was a lot of false information from politicians, even denying the existence of an oil spill when people saw it entering their shores and beaches,” he adds. “It was a terrifying cocktail.”

Until the Prestige finally sank six days later on November 19.

“The future was pitch-back, that’s the best way to put it. I was building a ship, and after that we even thought about stopping production,” Sar said.

“Rafa and impotence”

The ocean current favored the path of the heavy fuel oil towards the land. At that time, the oil spill covered 170 kilometers of coastline and in the following days it continued to spread.

Despite the bad weather, thousands of volunteers and army personnel came to Galicia to help clean the beaches.

“The image I have in my mind of those days is that of the volunteers working their hearts out, cleaning the beaches. And the desolation you had when, more or less, after a few days, you had the beach clean and, the next day, you arrived and beach was the same as at the beginning”, said Sar.

“You would come back with that anger and helplessness,” he said.

The cleanup was chaotic, and the volunteers didn’t even have protective gear.

“There was absolutely nothing. The first time the (Spanish) king came to Muxia, we told him that we had absolutely nothing, not even protective equipment. The next day a truck appeared in the port area, and they took him to Civil. Protection with gloves , covers and masks”, pointed out Sar.

From sunrise to sunset, they collected more than 100,000 tons of black, tarry glue. The days were hard and intense.

“When there was a sunny day, (the oil) became more volatile and you could see the volunteers getting dizzy and fainting. It was shocking,” he added.

The judgment of the Prestige

The spill affected nearly 3,000 kilometers of polluted coastline, but the trial, which took place ten years after the spill, only put some of the guilty parties in the dock, according to Santos.

“The trial was the biggest environmental trial in the history of Spain. It was a mega-trial. Its investigation lasted nine years. And after eleven years, no one was found guilty. In fact, many people did not appear,” Santos. the Greenpeace spokesman said.

“There was a ruling in 2013 by the Autonomous Court (of Galicia), but it didn’t even convict anyone for an environmental crime.”

“He only condemned the captain of the ship for serious disobedience to the Spanish authorities in the rescue operations,” said Margarita Trejo, an expert in environmental law.

“It took 16 years, until 2008, to get a two-year prison sentence for an environmental and ecological crime against the captain of the ship.”

“It has also taken 16 years to obtain compensation and reparations both for the Spanish State and the Xunta de Galicia, as well as for the others affected,” said Trejo.

The total sum that the Spanish State requests in reparation is 1,000 million dollars (about 1,000 million euros).

A British court has yet to determine whether the Prestige’s British insurer — which was declared liable by proxy for the ecological tragedy — has to compensate the victims.

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