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

After finishing his work day on November 13, 2002, Javier Sar, a fisherman for 20 years in the Spanish province of Galicia, was at a bar with his friends.

They had heard the news on the radio while hunting that day. One of the boats on the Finisterre tunnel had a problem. Nothing too uncommon.

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

Never before had 63,000 tons of heavy fuel oil washed up on the shores of northern Iberia – and ended up creating 2,000 kilometers of polluted area stretching from Portugal to Spain and France.

Twenty years ago, on the evening of November 13, however, everything was at a standstill.

The situation quickly becomes chaotic

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

Thinking it was a leak from their own ship, the two sailors went down into the engine room, but as they walked around the passage, they realized the smell was no longer so strong.

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

“We had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t imagine that it was the tanker that was 27 (self) miles out a few hours ago and got into trouble, but we started to connect the dots,” Sar Sar. said Euronews.

“We heard the tugboats talking on a radio station and then we realized it. The ship was almost on the coast of Muxia.”

That tanker was the Prestige. The 243 meter long ship was out of control with 27 crew members on board. A heavy storm had caused a leak that tilted the ship 45 degrees and the oil it was carrying started leaking into the sea.

Shortly after, Sar received a call from Galicia’s regional marine minister – local authorities were concerned.

What is the situation,” he asked.

“Chaotic. The boat (is sinking) offshore and we’re just going to see what will happen,” Sar told him.

“Pitch Black Future”

The Prestige was a 26-year-old single-carriage vessel that had just received its certificate of navigation from the US classification society ABS after repairs in China.

Experts investigating 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 several other sailors remained inside the ship to help tow it in — authorities decided to move it from shore and, with the help of tugboats, took it out to sea.

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

The decision was made by the then Minister of Roads, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, who ordered the ship to be towed away from the coast in a northerly direction, causing concern to the French and British authorities.

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

The cabinet even considered the possibility of bombing the tanker with fighter jets 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. This was maximizing the catastrophe,” Santos pointed out, talking about the failure in the management of the crisis.

“There was a lot of misinformation from politicians, even denying that there was an oil spill when people saw it coming onto their shores and beaches,” he adds. “It was a terrifying cocktail.”

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

“The future was a setback, that’s the best way to put it. I was building a boat and after that we even considered stopping production,” said Sar.

“Anger and Helplessness”

The ocean current supported the path of the heavy oil towards 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 military personnel came to Galicia to help clean up the beaches.

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

“You would come back with this anger and impotence,” he said.

The cleanup was a mess 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 we had absolutely nothing, not even protective material. The next day a truck appeared in the port area and they took him to Civil. Protection with gloves, protective and masks,” said Sar.

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

“When it 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 Prestige Trial

The spill affected nearly 3,000 kilometers of polluted coastline, but the trial, which took place ten years after the spill, only convicted a few, according to Santos.

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

“There was a verdict in 2013 by the regional court (in Galicia), but it didn’t even convict anyone for environmental crimes.”

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

“It has taken 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 get compensation and reparations for both the Spanish state and the Junta de Galicia, as well as the others affected,” Trejo said.

The total amount requested by the Spanish government in damages is 1 billion dollars (about 1 billion euros).

A UK court has yet to decide whether the British insurance company Prestige – which has been declared liable by proxy for the ecological tragedy – must compensate the victims.

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