Spain’s ‘Prestige’: The worst-ever oil spill in Europe ‘could happen again’

Twenty years after the oil tanker "Prestige" broke apart off the coast of northwestern Spain, covering thousands of kilometres (miles) of Atlantic coast with crude oil and killing 200,000 seabirds, some fear it could happen again.

Spain's 'Prestige': The worst-ever oil spill in Europe 'could happen again'
A Spanish Navy soldier takes a break while cleaning a beach polluted by heavy fuel oil leaking from the Prestige tanker, 19 November 2002 in Cayon, 30 kilometres south of La Coruña. (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP)

The tragedy unfolded just off one of Spain’s most scenic coastlines, turning the beaches of Galicia “black”, devastating the region’s fishing industry and leaving a trail of death and damage as far as France and Portugal.

The shock is still raw two decades on, said Alberto Blanco, former mayor of the seaside town of Muxia, close to where the single-hulled Bahama-flagged Liberian tanker first got into trouble during a storm on November 13, 2002.

The crew issued a distress call after a gaping hole several metres wide appeared in the ageing vessel’s hull.

As soon as he heard the news, Blanco recalled rushing to the seafront and seeing the vessel was “very close to the coast and that the situation was very serious.

“The ship was listing in very rough seas, with a swell that was six to eight metres (20-26 feet) high,” he said.

The following day its 77,000 tonnes of heavy-grade fuel oil began leaking into the sea.

With the storm still raging, the Spanish authorities tried to tow the tanker further out to sea, in a controversial decision that went against an emergency plan drawn up by experts calling for it to be brought to port to contain the leak.

A seabird covered in oil spilled from the tanker “Prestige” lies dying on Doninos beach near the city of Ferrol. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

200,000 birds killed

After six days adrift, the vessel broke in two and sank some 270 kilometres off the Galician coast, coming to rest at a depth of 3,500 metres and causing the worst-ever oil slick on the Iberian Peninsula.

“The scope of the catastrophe was enormous,” with consequences “not only in Spain, but also in Portugal and France,” said Sara del Rio, a researcher with Greenpeace Spain.

In all, the tanker spilled an estimated 63,000 tonnes of fuel oil into the Atlantic, coating nearly 3,000 kilometres of the coastline with foul black sludge and killing nearly 200,000 seabirds, despite the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers.

“The rocks were full of black tar, and so were the beaches,” Blanco recalled. “Cleaning them was incredibly difficult, because it was slimy and sticky, and it just came back again with the tide, which gave you a sense of impotence and rage.

“It was a never-ending battle.”

After a cleanup that lasted months, and a complex trial that took years, Spain’s Supreme Court in 2016 found the tanker’s skipper, its British insurer The London P&I Club, and Liberian owner Mare Shipping Inc liable for the disaster.

It sentenced the Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras — who was 67 when the “Prestige” went down — to two years in jail, and ordered that the owner and the insurer pay €1.5 billion ($1.5 billion) in compensation, mostly to the Spanish state.

Neighbouring France was awarded €61 million.

Aerial view of the stricken Bahamas-flagged tanker Prestige, split in two, sinking off the coast of Cayon on November 19th 2002. The tanker was carrying more than 70,000 tonnes of fuel oil. (Photo by AFP/DOUANE FRANCAISE / AFP)

‘Misguided decisions’

NGOs hailed the ruling, but expressed regret that no politicians were called to account despite the “disastrous” decisions taken by the Spanish government of right-wing premier Jose María Aznar and the Galician regional authorities.

“There were misguided decisions, such as moving the ship away from the coast instead of bringing it closer to a port to contain the impact,” said Greenpeace’s Del Rio.

“It caused the spill to spread in such a way that it was impossible to control it,” she added, saying the court did not “draw all the necessary conclusions”.

Ecologists collecting oil-affected sea birds on Rostro beach approach a dead sea turtle covered in petrol. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

Since the “Prestige” spill, the EU has tightened maritime safety laws, banning single-hull oil tankers, ordering ship inspections in port and setting up the European Maritime Safety Agency.

But such measures have not entirely eliminated the risk of a new oil spill.

“At any moment a catastrophe like the ‘Prestige’ could happen again,” said Del Rios.

“Firstly, because there are still ships transporting oil that are in poor condition. And secondly, because more and more fossil fuels are being transported.”

Member comments

  1. Most countries dont want disabled oíl tankers anywhere near their coasts.
    The Captain called for asistance but was refused admittance to a port of refuge where the spill May have been managed by transhipping the oíl.
    But towing a ship into a port with crude oíl leaking out would not have been a popular decisión.
    I dont think the Captain should have been jailed for this as he didnt cause his ship to break up by going aground through bad navigation.

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Spanish reservoirs fill up to highest level since last May

After one of the worst droughts in Spain this summer, the good news is that the country’s reservoirs are filling up again and are now already at 50 percent of their capacity.

Spanish reservoirs fill up to highest level since last May

The water levels of Spanish reservoirs continue to rise and are already at 50.9 percent of their capacity, the latest data reveals, a figure that has not been seen since May 2022.

Storms and rainfall in recent weeks have caused water reserves to increase to 28,533 cubic hectometres.

Statistics show water levels have risen for the seventh consecutive week and continue to improve on the previous week too. 

There is also a great improvement compared to the same week of 2022, when the capacity was only at 45.19 percent. 

The current figure has, in fact, almost reached the average of the last 10 years, which amounts to 56.69 percent capacity.

Asturias is the region that has benefitted from the recent rains the most and the capacity of its reservoirs currently stands at 92.76 percent.

This is followed by its neighbour Galicia where levels are currently at 88.6 percent. In third place is the Basque Country where reservoirs have reached 68.05 percent capacity. 

This lies in stark contrast to the south of Spain where levels are still very low. The capacity of the reservoirs in Murcia is only at 25.68 percent and in Andalusia it’s only 29.75 percent.

The latest report from the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge shows that many of the country’s drainage basins are also recovering with Galicia Costa at 94.9 percent, Cantábrico Occidental at 91 percent and Miño-Sil, also in Galicia, at 84.2 percent. 

The much-needed rainfall has affected the entire peninsula in the last couple of weeks with the maximum recorded in Santander of 182.2 millimeters. 

Last summer, regions across Spain suffered from the lack of water and reserves fell to 39 percent, the lowest percentage since 1995.

However, a further study published by the Nature Geoscience journal claimed that the summer droughts of 2022 left parts of the Iberian peninsula at their driest in 1,200 years.