The Bahamas-flagged Prestige

The oil tanker Prestige sank off Spain. 


The Bahamas-flagged Prestige, which began spilling oil, split in half about 152 miles off Spain’s Galician coast. Environmentalists had warned that if the ship sank it would cause an ecological catastrophe twice the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska. 

On November 13, 2002, a severe storm hit the Galician coast in Spain along the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Heavy rains and high winds of over 120 km/h were observed over the region, and especially over the maritime area near the Atlantic coast of Galicia. This was not unusual for that time of the year. Autumn and winter in this part of the world are usually characterized by a high frequency of winter storms that have heavy rainfall and high gusty winds, and navigation in this region becomes especially risky. In ancient times, Romans called the northwestern tip of this land „Cape Finisterrae” (End of the World), and in modern times this coastal area is known as „Costa da Morte” (The Dead Coast). Severe storms have destroyed many ships over the centuries. However, November 13, 2002, was special: a single-hulled tank steamer named Prestige, originally bound for Singapore but ordered to steam to Gibraltar with more than 77,000 metric tons of fuel oil on board, suffered from the high winds and turbulent sea very near the Spanish coast and began to spill fuel. This was the start of one of the worst ecological disasters ever recorded in Galicia, in Spain, in Europe, and even worldwide. The Prestige was transporting twice as much oil as the infamous Exxon Valdez, which went aground in Alaskan waters in 1989.

Portugal and Spain had barred salvagers from towing the ship to any of their ports to protect their fishing and tourism industries from further damage. 

Environmentalists had demanded that the Prestige should be bombed and burned before it is allowed to sink.  „If it sinks to the bottom it could still be the worst environmental disaster we have ever seen,” warned Miguel Angel Valladares of the Spanish branch of the WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature. 

The Danish salvage company Smit International is attempting to rescue the Prestige and began to tow her towards Africa. Smit spokeswoman Claudia Van Andel had said it would keep the tanker heading south until it found somewhere it could attempt a transfer of the cargo, but admitted that that probably would not happen until the tanker got to Africa. It did not happen. Some time later she said the vessel had been disconnected from the salvage tugs. The Smit company estimated that the tanker had lost between 1.3 million gallons and 2.6 million gallons of fuel so far. 

Various factors contributed to the increasing magnitude of the disaster, but the most important one was undoubtedly the „weather connection.” On November 14, the Spanish government made the decision to move the vessel westward, away from the coast. They believed such a movement would prevent the fuel from spreading to any part of the Iberian coast. However, when the ship began to move away from Costa de Morte, it was surprisingly carried southward toward Portuguese waters, spreading the oil spill into a long „fuel front” exactly to the west, exposing almost the entire Atlantic coastline of Galicia. This was a terrible mistake, because it did not take into account the climate factor. The winds in autumn normally blow from the west, and forecasts from many sources indicated that changes for westerly (eastward-flowing) winds over the area for the next few days was practically assured. 

Prestige survived on sea surface for 90 hours. Spokeswoman of Smit told the Reuters news agency: „The aft [rear] part of the ship has sunk. The front part is still floating but it will sink … A lot of oil went down with this [aft] part.” 

As a consequence, „black tides” of highly toxic fuel oil began to reach the coastal areas, driven by high westerly winds during the next two weeks. The oil slick virtually destroyed one of the most beautiful and richest areas for fishing in Europe, affecting the economy and the basis of many fishermen’s livelihood. Hundreds of beaches were destroyed, and the wildlife has been severely damaged, which affects the crucial economic activities such as tourism.

Are individuals, institutions, or governments to blame for this environmental tragedy? Searching for reasonable explanations about why weather and climate factors were not adequately taken into account is currently almost impossible. However, some lessons have to be learned. On a national level, Spain did not have a preparedness plan for this kind of disaster. Although these kinds of events are not unusual in Galicia, the magnitude of this event forced the national government to take urgent action. It had to improvise under strong regional pressure and, consequently, obstructed the development of faster relief measures. This increased the chances for making severe mistakes.

For the first time, a „human-made” disaster has had a harsh impact on all stages of Galician social life, and even in all of Spain. The political consequences in the long term are very difficult to predict. The capacity of the European Union (EU) to exert a leadership role in environmental protection, following the US withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol process, has also been called into question. The EU has maintained a very weak policy about ocean transport of dangerous cargo, a policy forced by the economic interests of some EU members. 

Currently, the Prestige is an ecological time bomb. Sunk 3,000 meters deep in the Atlantic Ocean, with 40,000 tons of fuel oil remaining in its tanks, it continues to represent a serious threat not only to Galicia, but to other locations in the Atlantic as well. Living marine resources in this part of the Atlantic could be damaged by the toxic waste; fishing industries of several countries could be impacted in a wider sense. The Prestige disaster might, for example, prove to be the beginning of the end for many parts of the rich fishing industry based in Galicia. It is also the beginning of the end of the old EU policy regarding the security of transportation in European seas and coastal areas. In any event, what the Prestige disaster MUST be is the beginning of the end of a worldwide policy that relegates the environment to being held hostage to the economic interests in the name of human well-being. Back home, thousands of Galician fishermen remain at risk, and the world must pay attention.

Written by: Lino Narajo Diaz

In a twist that threatens to exacerbate the Anglo-Spanish row over Gibraltar, Spain has blamed Britain for the disaster, claiming the ageing London-insured ship had been heading for Gibraltar because it did not meet EU security regulations to dock at any other European port. 

– The blame is also put on Latvia because Prestige took her cargo there.

– On British Marine Authorities for refusing Prestige to reach any EU port.

– On Prestige owner a Russian Swiss-based company.

– On Spain and Portugal for not allowing Prestige to use any of their ports as “port of  refugee” (maritime law).

At an Athens party for the movers and shakers in world shipping the drinks flow freely. Life is good. But the industry funding this champagne lifestyle is coming under increasing scrutiny following one of Europe’s worst environmental disasters…….

It was written after disaster of Erika at 1999.

How much was actually changed since that. Seems, very little. Laws were.

Shipping bosses are still feeling well and laughing. A murky world where profit rules over safety still exist and blaming shifts practices were not changed much for all those years.

Capt. Z. W. Gamski

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