The Prestige Oil Spill: 10 Years On

LSS Oceanography LOW RES

When the Prestige went down 10 years ago, the whole Bay of Biscay felt the effects.

So after a decade-long inquiry, what's been done to prevent it happening again?

Photo by Willy Uribe

At 15:15hrs on Wednesday 13th November 2002 a distress call was issued from a ship called the Prestige lying approximately 30nm from Muxía on the northwest coast of Spain. From this moment on, the biggest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of Spain, and probably Europe, was about to unfold.

The Prestige oil spill contaminated 786 beaches and made surfing impossible from Northern Portugal, around the entire Atlantic coast of Spain, up into southwest France and beyond, for at least four months. Entire beaches were covered up to a metre thick in a highly poisonous black gunge that sticks to you like glue and emits a toxic gas. For a while there, the Biscay coast was like a vision from Hell.

Nowadays not many people talk about the Prestige, even though the rocks still bear evidence in the form of black stains. The hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals, including at least one man, that were poisoned to death as a direct result of the Prestige, seem to have been forgotten. But if you surf or enjoy spending time at the coast oil spills are one of your biggest enemies. An oil spill is local contamination at its worst – it will affect you even if you don’t give a damn about bigger issues such as global warming and biodiversity. So I think we should remember the Prestige, and see if anything is being done to stop it happening again.

Nowadays not many people talk about the Prestige, even though the rocks still bear evidence in the form of black stains. The hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals, including at least one man, that were poisoned to death as a direct result of the Prestige, seem to have been forgotten.

For those of you who don’t remember the disaster, here is some very brief background information:

Muxía is on Galicia’s Costa da Morte, previously one of the most unspoilt coastlines in Europe, with empty white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water and a number of high-class, super-consistent surf spots. It is still off the beaten track for most surfers; most of the time. Apart from during mid-summer, around here you’ll be looking for someone to surf with.

The Prestige was a single-hulled supertanker, built in 1975. At the time it sank it was carrying 77,000 tonnes of low-grade heavy fuel oil. The ship was in poor condition: inspections more than three years before had already detected structural fatigue, but it was still declared seaworthy in the Bahamas, under whose flag of convenience it was sailing.

The cargo that the Prestige was carrying was nastier than normal ‘crude oil’. Heavy fuel oil is used for large industrial engines; it is highly volatile but also extremely sticky. Short-term effects of exposure include skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems, nausea, splitting headaches and insomnia. Long-term consequences include genetic mutations, leukaemia and direct effects on the immune, reproductive and nervous systems.

The distress call was sent out because the ship had started leaking oil. Over the next few days, the vessel was towed around in circles while steadily deteriorating. The captain requested for it to be brought into a sheltered cove in order to contain the oil, but the Spanish authorities denied the request and ordered the Prestige out of Spanish waters and as far away from the coast as possible.

To describe what happened next as the ‘worst-case scenario’ would be an understatement. At 09:00 on 19th November 2002 the Prestige broke in half and sank, spewing out its contents into the ocean. At least 50,000 tonnes of oil hit the coast in several waves, or ‘black tides’, gradually making its way south towards Portugal and east into the Bay of Biscay. Less than a month later the oil had spread all along the north coast of Spain and up into the French Biscay coast. For the rest of the winter, surfing was out of the question along that entire coast, which contains many of the best reef, beach and pointbreaks in Europe. Then, the following summer, holidaymakers had to either avoid the beaches or contend with oil-stained feet, towels and children, and large floating patches of oil in the water. The following winter (2003-2004) most people were surfing again, but sporadic patches of stinking oil would regularly stick to your board, wetsuit, hands and face.

Over the next few years the oil gradually disappeared and was forgotten about, either dissipating in the ocean or drying like paint on the rocks, and we gradually returned to business as usual. A lot of scientific studies were done on the loss of biodiversity and the toxic effects of the fuel, including numerous economic analyses related to the fishing industry. A lot of debating was done about how to stop it happening again, and some new rules were actually put into place, albeit half-heartedly, such as those concerning single- and double-hulled tankers.

But the issue of what to do if a spill does actually happen, and the development of a foolproof worst-case scenario protocol, seems to have mostly been avoided. In fact, one very important question which has been pondered over and over again is why the hell the boat was towed to a spot more than 100 miles from the coast instead of being brought into a harbour, as requested by the captain. Knowing that a major spill was imminent, bringing it into a port would have contained the oil inside an area thousands of times smaller, and the environmental costs would have been infinitely less.

The decision to order the boat away from the coast was made by civil servants working for the regional Galician and national Spanish governments. It seems that there was no consultation with any scientists or with anybody else who remotely knew what was going on. In fact, less than three months after the event a letter was published in the prestigious journal Science, signed by 423 marine and atmospheric scientists from 32 universities and six research institutions, to draw attention to the fact that the decision to tow the vessel offshore was a result of extremely poor (or non-existent) communication between the governing powers and the scientific community: “We demand that the Spanish authorities improve the mechanisms and logistics for scientific and technical consultation and refrain from making vague public statements that are seriously, and unfairly, damaging the image of Spanish marine and atmospheric sciences". (Science vol. 299, no. 5606, p. 511).

On 16th October 2012, almost exactly 10 years later, a court case got underway, supposedly to find out who is to blame for the Prestige disaster, and to punish them accordingly. Whether the right people are being accused of the right crimes, is another matter. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that accusers and the accused are the wrong way round.

So who was responsible? If the Russian oligarchs or whoever it was who owned the oil in the first place hadn’t used such a crappy vessel to transport it, it wouldn’t have happened. But as far as I can see, they aren’t being put on trial; apparently nobody even knows who they are. Perhaps the Bahaman authorities are the culprits for giving the ship a clean bill of health, or whoever is responsible for the international shipping law that still allows Flags of Convenience. Those people are not on trial either.

The defendants are just four people: Captain Apostolos Mangouras, his first officer, his chief engineer and the former head of the Spanish merchant marine department, José Luis Lopez-Sors. Apart from Lopez-Sors, the other people responsible for refusing Captain Mangouras permission to bring his ship into a port are miraculously missing from the defendants’ list. The people ultimately responsible for that were the politicians in charge at the time, now back in power again after a break of eight years. They aren’t going to put themselves on trial, are they?

Apart from bickering about who is responsible and who isn’t, there are more fundamental issues which are also not being considered, and probably never will be. The plaintiffs are claiming money to compensate for the environmental damage caused by the disaster. But Nature is not for sale. If you were a surfer in the Bay of Biscay in November 2002, you might understand. Just as no amount of money could bring back the dead fish, birds and mammals, or Manfred Gnadinger who sadly died as a result of the Prestige, no amount of money could bring back a winter of surfing at Mundaka, Meñakoz or Guethary.