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Prestige (ship)

The Prestige was a oil tanker whose sinking in 2002 off the Spanish coast caused a huge oil spill. Thousands of kilometers of coastline and more than thousand beaches on the Spanish and French coast were polluted, and the local fishing industry has been devastated. It has become the largest envionmental disaster in Spain's history.

Volunteers cleaning the coastline in Galicia in the aftermath of the Prestige catastrophe, March, 2003

Table of contents
1 The event
2 Aftermath
3 Quote
4 Reference
5 External link

The event

The Prestige was a Greek-operated, single-hulleded tanker flying a Bahamas flag, had a Liberian owner, and had been chartered by a Swiss-based Russian oil company.

On November 13,2002, one of the ship's tanks burst during a storm off Galicia in northwestern Spain. 5,000 tons of fuel oil were spilled in the incident. 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.

On 8.00 AM on November 19, the ship split in two. The oil tanker was reported to be about 250 km from the Spanish coast at that time. An earlier oil slick had already reached the coast.

The Spanish government decided to let the Prestige sink. It claimed the leakage would not have a lasting effect on the environment.

After the sinking, however, the wreck continued leaking oil, some 125 tons of oil a day, which has polluted the sea bed and contaminated the coastline. The affected area is not only a very important ecological region, supporting coral reefs and many species of sharks and birds, but it also supports the crucial fishing industry.

On December 10, the prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar, acknowledged that his government had made bad decisions. The ship would not have broken up and sunk if it had been towed to calm waters and the cargo could have been transferred, as the vessel's captain had requested.


In the subsequent months, thousands of volunteers from Spain and other parts of Europe flocked to Galicia to help clean the coastline. The French prime minister promised &euro 50 million for cleanup.

The ownership of the Prestige is unclear, making it difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for the oil spill.

Initially, the government claimed just 17,000 tons of oil had been lost, and that the remaining 60,000 tons would freeze and not leak from the sunken tanker. In early in 2003, it announced that half of the oil had been lost. Now that figure has risen to about 63,000 tons. But in August, 2003, Spanish government disclosed that the oil spill was far worse than previously claimed. Environmentalists are now comparing the damage caused to that of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. More than eighty per cent of the tanker's 77,000 tons of fuel oil is now thought to have been spilled off Spain's north-east coast.

Experts predict marine life will suffer pollution from the Prestige for at least ten years due to the type of oil spilt, which contain light fractions called polyaromatic-hydrocarbons. These toxic chemicals poison plankton, fish eggs and crustaceans, leading to carcinogenic effects in fish and other animals higher in the food chain.

The past months, engineers have been using robots to seal cracks in the tanker's hull, now 4000 metres below the sea surface. The oil leakage is now reported to have slowed to a trickle of 20 liters a day. By October 2004, engineers hope to have removed the oil still in the tanker by drilling of small holes in the wreck, and pumping it out into bags, 250 tons at a time. These will be floated to the surface. The total estimated cost of the operation will be US$100 million.

A recent report by the Galicia-based Barrie de la Maza economic institute criticised the Spanish government's handling of the catastrophe. It estimated the cost of the clean-up to the Galician coast alone at US$2.8 billion. The clean-up of the Exxon Valdez cost US$2 billion.

The government was also slated for its decision to tow the ailing wreck out to sea — where it split in two — rather than into a port. But Walmsley believes most of the blame lies with the ship's inspectors who allowed the Prestige to sail. "It was reported as being substandard at one of the ports it visited before Spain. The whole inspection regime needs to be revamped and double-hulled tankers used instead," he says.

Since the disaster, oil tankers similar to the Prestige have been directed away from the French and Spanish coastlines.


The environmental devastation caused is at least on a par, if not worse,than the Exxon Valdez. The amount of oil spilled is more than the Valdez and the toxicity is higher, because of the higher temperatures." — Simon Walmsley, World Wildlife Fund's senior policy officer for shipping


External link