Sunday, 4 March 2012

Nunca Mais: The Prestige Oil Disaster

It’s a windy night here in Galicia. The wind makes me think of those “in peril on the sea” as we used to sing in assembly when such things were not blighted by political correctness. It also serves to remind me that sometime back I began a series on shipwrecks of the Costa da Morte. There are literally hundreds, recently put together in an excellent book by my friend Rafael Lema. The most famous, or rather infamous, is probably the Prestige. In terms of loss of human life it cannot rank with The Serpent or the HMS Captain as mercifully no one lost their life as a direct fresult(the HMS Captain went down with 480 souls and about which later), but as an environmental and ecological disaster it is probably without equal.

The tanker Prestige was a Greek operated single-hulled ship which, by all accounts, should never have been on the high seas.

On the voyage in question in November 2002, it was carrying 77,000 metric tons of heavy oil when one of its tanks burst off the Galician Costa da Morte. The captain contacted the authorities with the news expecting that the ship would be brought into harbour. Captain Mangouras sought refuge for his seriously damaged vessel in a Spanish port: a request of which has deep historic roots. However, instead the ship was turned away not only from the Spanish coast but also the Portuguese where the naval authorities forced the vessel to once again change its course and head northwards. French opposition to having the ship in its ports left the Prestige with nowhere to go. On November 19th, having lost a substantial amount of its cargo, the ship split in half some 150 miles from the Galicia coastline.

An earlier oil slick had already reached the coast. The Greek captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, was taken into custody, accused of not co-operating with salvage crews and of harming the environment. After the sinking, the wreck continued leaking oil. It leaked approximately 125 tons of oil a day, which polluted the sea bed and contaminated the coastline, especially along the Costa da Morte of Galicia.

Initially, the government announced that 17,000 tons of oil had been lost, and that the remaining 60,000 tons would freeze and not leak from the sunken tanker. However, by early 2003, it was claimed that half of the oil had been lost. In subsequent investigations that figure has risen considerably to almost 90% of the Prestige’s cargo.

The immediate damage to those who depended upon the sea for their livelihood, and to habitats and wildlife was incalculable. While the governments of Galicia and Spain pondered what to do, thousands of volunteers were organized to help clean the affected coastline. As teams of volunteers cleared one thick coat of fuel from the sand another black wave would wash in.

In a region renowned for an abundance of fine fish and seafood, fishermen faced the though of complete ruin. Almost 26,000 people depend on the sea in Galicia for their livelihood, but as the slick spread all fishing was banned.

The massive cleaning campaign was a success, however, recovering most portions of coastline not only from the effects of the oil spill but also from the accumulated usual contamination, although even today, patches of oil and oil-covered rocks are still a common enough site on many beaches.

But according to recent BBC news story, a scientific study suggests clean-up workers may have been exposed unnecessarily to harm. Genotoxic analysis detected increased "damage values" in volunteers exposed to the oil over several months, suggesting a higher risk of certain illnesses, including cancer.

Although the oil covered 100's of miles of coastline, the environmental damage caused by the Prestige was most severe in the coast of Galicia, where local activists founded the environmental movement Nunca Máis (Galician for Never Again), to denounce the passiveness of the conservative government regarding the disaster. The cost of the clean-up to the Galician coast alone has been estimated at €2.5 billion. The clean-up of the Exxon Valdez cost US$3 billion. Because of the colder temperature of the waters off the Canadian west coast, the oil from the Exxon Valdez was said to be easier to contain. In the immediate aftermath of the Prestige incident, rescue teams found more than 22,000 dead birds. It is thought that was a fraction of the total number killed.

Unlike the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP is having to foot a huge bill for compensation, the complexities of international shipping meant Spain only recovered a small percentage of the estimated 660m euros ($832m; £541m) worth of damage caused by the Prestige.

For most Galicians, the trial of the tanker's captain and crew - and the director of Merchant Shipping in Madrid - is about getting answers, not money.

They want to know who was responsible, and they demand reassurance such an accident could never be repeated.

No comments:

Post a Comment