Galicians demand answers over 2002 Prestige oil spill

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Galicia

  • Published
Galician coast
Image caption,
Galicians want reassurance that the Prestige disaster could never be repeated

The coastline of Galicia is green and rugged, dotted with deserted, sandy coves. But this enticing landscape was the site of one of Spain's worst environmental disasters.

On 13 November 2002, the Prestige oil tanker ran into trouble just offshore.

A week later, it broke up, spilling more than 60,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

Now, a 266,000-page report into the accident is finally complete, paving the way for what has been dubbed a "mega-trial" later this year.

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.

But 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 reassurance such an accident could never be repeated.

Back in business

Eight years on, though, this region's recovery has been remarkable.

Image caption,
The heavy fuel oil from the Prestige soaked the beaches of Galicia

For weeks, the toxic cargo that seeped from the Prestige soaked the beaches of Galicia.

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 feared their ruin.

Almost 26,000 people depend on the sea in Galicia for their livelihood, but as the slick spread all fishing was banned.

"We'd never seen anything that big before," remembers Francisco Iglesias, in the small town of O Grove.

"People had to scoop up the oil themselves with their hands, into their boats."

The fishing ban lasted for several months at the most lucrative time of the year.

Image caption,
Fish stocks have recovered and now fetch pre-Prestige prices at auction

Government compensation came quickly - around 1,500 euros ($1,892; £1,229) per month, per fisherman.

It was much less than they would have earned at sea, but helped them survive. Today, most boats are back in business.

Bringing in the day's catch, Mr Iglesias says the average haul shrunk by a third following the fishing ban. But stocks recovered and now fetch pre-Prestige prices at auction.

"Fortunately, fish aren't like humans who take so long to reproduce," he laughs. "If there's a good spot and the climate's good they reappear."

Hidden traces

Today, the grimly-named yet beautiful Costa de la Muerte (Coast of Death) looks pristine - the water is crystal-clear; beaches glisten with white sand.

But this was the worst affected stretch of coast, and traces of oil are still easy to find.

"Cleaning these rocks completely was impossible," explains Xose Manuel, one of many volunteers who worked here.

Image caption,
Today, the Coast of Death looks pristine

He points out rocks part-coated in black; there are still clumps of moist tar beneath.

"The government needs to explain why this disaster was so badly managed," Mr Manuel says of the upcoming trial.

Like many, he argues that the Prestige should have been brought into port and not towed out to sea, making any spill easier to contain.

Environmentalists say what oil remains on land today presents no danger.

'Damage values'

But 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.

"Their risk is increased in the same way as heavy smokers, or people who live in highly contaminated cities," explains Blanca Laffon of O Coruna University, who is conducting the research.

She suggests that the protective clothing used by volunteers was inadequate, or that they were not shown how to use it.

"We say that the human being is the only animal that trips on the same stone twice," comments Dr Luis Cabanela, who treated many clean-up volunteers in 2002.

He says the teams who dealt with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico repeated Galicia's mistakes.

"We saw people cleaning the coast in Louisiana without masks and with bare hands. That has consequences," he adds.

Wildlife decimated

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.

Image caption,
After the Prestige incident, rescue teams found 22,000 dead birds

The Cies Islands are important breeding grounds for cormorants, but scientists say the population has never recovered.

"It was a huge blow," says Cristobal Perez of Vigo University.

His research suggests the birds' food-supply was disrupted; more females were killed, affecting breeding, and he detected toxins in the birds' blood.

Today, cormorants bask in the sunshine on the island rocks. But Mr Perez's count shows their number has fallen 50% since 2002.

"I want those responsible to pay for what they did," he says of the trial, "So they realise such a disaster affects marine birds and animals as well as people."


It affects a region's reputation too, as the US is finding out.

Image caption,
The number of cormorants on the Cies Islands has fallen 50% since 2002

Tourism accounts for 10% of the Galician economy, so rebuilding the region's image was vital.

In the US, President Barack Obama took his family to Florida to urge tourists back to its deserted beaches.

In Galicia, a multi-million dollar PR campaign did the same.

"The government has to prioritise all its efforts on image campaigns - but not just for one year," explains Carmen Pardo, of Galicia's tourist board.

"It took at least six years of hard work to recover the situation here," she says. "But it can work. There is hope."