After finishing his day’s work 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 had problems. Nothing too rare.
No one could have predicted that this seemingly manageable event would become the worst environmental disaster in Spain’s history.
Never before had 63,000 tons of heavy fuel oil rolled down the northern coasts of the Iberian country, eventually creating 2,000 kilometers of polluted area stretching from Portugal to Spain and France.
However, twenty years ago, on the evening of November 13, all was calm.
The situation quickly becomes chaotic
It was in the early hours of the morning – barely two hours into his shift – when a frightened colleague woke Javier. 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 through the corridors, they realized that 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 it was the tanker that was 27 (nautical) miles a few hours ago and had trouble, but we started to connect the dots” , Sar told Euronews.
“We heard the tugs talking on a radio channel, then we realized. The ship was practically on the coast of Muxia.”
This tanker was the Prestige. The 243 meter long vessel was out of control with 27 crew members on board. The strong storm had caused a leak, which heeled the ship 45 degrees and the oil it was carrying began to leak into the sea.
Shortly after, Sar received a call from the regional fisheries minister of Galicia – the local authorities were worried.
What is the situation?” he asked.
“Chaotic. The boat (sinks) off the coast and we are only about to see what will happen,” Sar told him.
“A Black Future as Black”
The Prestige was a 26-year-old single-hull vessel that had just received its navigation certificate from the American classifier ABS after a repair in China.
Experts who investigated the case said the vessel suffered from hull failure in the same section where it was repaired.
After rescuing most of the crew on board – the captain and a few other sailors remained inside the ship to help tow it – the authorities decided to move it away from the coast and, with the help of tugs, took it out to sea.
“It was a disaster that could have been reduced to a few kilometers of coastline, but the remoteness of the ship caused nearly 2,000 kilometers of pollution, making it a continent-wide disaster,” said the Greenpeace spokesman Manoel Santos.
The decision was made 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 meeting since November 14 and several options were put on the table.
The cabinet even considered the possibility of bombarding 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 the movement of the ship. It was maximizing the disaster,” Santos stressed, referring to the mistakes in the management of the crisis.
“There has been a lot of misinformation from politicians, even denying the existence of an oil slick when people saw it entering their coasts and beaches,” he adds. “It was a terrifying cocktail.”
Until the Prestige finally sank six days later on November 19.
“The future was in hindsight, that’s the best way to put it. I was building a boat and after that we even considered stopping production,” Sar said.
“Anger and Helplessness”
The ocean current favored the transport of heavy fuel oil towards the mainland. At the time, the oil spill covered 170 kilometers of coastline, and in the days that followed, it continued to spread.
Despite the bad weather, thousands of volunteers and soldiers came to Galicia to help clean the beaches.
“The image I have in mind of those days is of volunteers working hard, cleaning the beaches. And the desolation you had when, more or less, after a few days, you had a beach clean and the next day you arrived and the beach was the same as when it started,” Sar said.
“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 king (of Spain) came to Muxia, we told him that we had absolutely nothing, not even protective equipment. The next day, a truck is appeared in the port area and they took him to Civil Protection with gloves, blankets and masks,” Sar said.
From sunrise to sunset, they collected over 100,000 tons of black, tarry goo. The days were hard and intense.
“When it was a sunny day, (the oil) would become more volatile and you would see the volunteers become dizzy and pass out. 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, put only some of the culprits in the dock, according to Santos.
“The trial was the largest 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, a lot of people didn’t show up,” Santos said. said the Greenpeace spokesperson.
“There was a conviction in 2013 by the High Regional Court (of Galicia), but it didn’t even convict anyone for an environmental crime.”
“He only condemned the captain of the ship for gross disobedience to the Spanish authorities during the rescue operations,” said environmental law expert Margarita Trejo.
“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 also took 16 years to obtain compensation and reparations for the Spanish state and the Junta de Galicia, as well as for the other people affected,” Trejo said.
The total sum that the Spanish state is asking for in reparations amounts to 1 billion dollars (about 1 billion euros).
A UK court has yet to determine whether the UK insurer of the Prestige – which has been found liable by proxy for the ecological tragedy – should compensate the victims.
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