Tanker "Prestige" Sinks off Spanish Coast

MADRID, Spain, November 19, 2002 (ENS) - The damaged oil tanker "Prestige" broke in two and disappeared beneath the waves some 75 miles off Spain’s northwestern coast today with a 22 million gallon cargo of fuel oil on board. The sinking raised fears of a massive ecological disaster on the scale of the Exxon Valdez, which carried about half the amount of oil on board the "Prestige."

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Damaged tanker "Prestige" wallows in the Atlantic on November 13. (Photo courtesy Xunta de Galicia)
The "Prestige" cracked up during a storm November 13 off Europe's westernmost point of land, Cape Finisterre, on Spain's Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death. The crew was evacuated from the ship, and it was towed about 150 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Owned by the Bahamian company Mare Shipping Inc., and flying a Bahamian flag, the 26 year old single hulled tanker was operated by Universe Maritime Ltd. of Greece. It was headed from Latvia to Gibraltar and then to Singapore when it encountered the storm.

The vessel initially spilled at least 1.3 million gallons of oil which has washed up as sludge on the environmentally fragile Galician coast. For fear of contamination, the rich fishing grounds were temporarily closed, leaving hundreds of fishermen idle. The Galician regional environmental authority has promised to compensate them at the rate of €24.75 per day of enforced idleness.

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Crew of the tanker "Prestige" just before they were airlifted to safety November 13. (Photo courtesy Xunta de Galicia)
Environmentalists are pinning their hopes of avoiding a catastrophe on the belief that the oil is still contained within compartments in the holds of the ship. The stern compartments are believed to have been intact when the tanker sank this morning in an area where the water is over 3,000 meters (9,750 feet) deep.

More than 50 volunteers coordinated by the BirdLife International partner in Spain, the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/BirdLife), walked the coastline Sunday and counted more than 250 individual seabirds of 18 different species that had been affected by the spill.

Many seabirds are now in the peak of their migration south. The most commonly affected species were yellow-legged gull, black-backed gull, shag, black-headed gull, northern gannet and razorbill, and to a lesser extent common guillemot and manx shearwater.

Most of these species are now migrating through the Galician coast and breed in the United Kingdom and France, Birdlife said.

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Oiled cormorant swims along the Costa da Morte (Photo courtesy BirdLife International)
SEO/BirdLife and WWF/Adena are collaborating with the regional environmental authorities, Xunta de Galicia. International experts on marine catastrophes from the Ergos Programme and International Fund for Animal Welfare have moved to the area to help with oiled bird recovery. Other international bodies have offered support, such as Medmaravis, Project Blue Sea and Sea Alarm Foundation. About 200 oiled birds have now been treated for recovery.

But there may be a greater ecological disaster on the horizon. Environmentalists are worried because the vessel sank near the archipelago Las Islas Cíes, a national park.

The Galician regional environmental authority, Xunta de Galicia, is installing oil barriers in an attempt to prevent the fuel oil from entering areas along the coast that are proposed by the province of Galicia for protection under the European Union's Natura 2000 program.

In addition to government and corporate investigations, The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), an international classification society based in Houston, Texas, had launched a detailed technical investigation into the possible causes of the damage sustained by the tanker. "Early reports of the incident have been confusing with respect to the type of damage sustained, the possible causes of the damage and the extent of the pollution that occurred," said ABS president Robert Somerville.

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Waves break over the center of the stricken tanker. (Photo courtesy Xunta de Galicia)
The tanker's last annual survey was carried out in May Dubai, and the"Prestige" had a full drydock inspection in China in May 2001, ABS said.

Today's oil spill disaster in Spanish waters shows the “crying need for tough new liability laws for environmental damage” Friends of the Earth said today. For years, the oil industry has opposed liability for the impacts of spills on biodiversity.

“Once again a European coast is under threat from a massive oil slick. Although these incidents happen with depressing regularity nothing has been done to make oil companies still avoid paying for the damage caused to the environment and peoples' livelihoods," Friends of the Earth’s pollution campaigner Matt Phillips said today.

"Politicians must resist the disgraceful lobbying from the oil industry and their friends and draw up tough rules that ensure people and the environment are put ahead of big business,” said Phillips.

European shores have been fouled by three major oil spills in the past 10 years, always during the winter months. On January 5, 1993, the "Brear" spilled 26 million gallons of oil off the Shetland Islands. On February 15, 1996, the "Sea Empress" dumped 18 million gallons of oil off Wales. And on Dec 12, 1999 off Brittany on the French Atlantic coast the Erika spilled three million gallons of oil.

The European Parliament is set to discuss a draft EU Liability Directive later this month. But Friends of the Earth has criticized the proposal as being “so weak it is practically useless.”