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Row over Prestige Oil Spill Continues

November 19, 2003

One year after the oil tanker Prestige sank off the coast of Spain spilling thousands of tons of oil onto Europe's coastline, the dispute over responsibility goes on.

The Prestige dumped some 50,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic.Image: AP

On November 19, 2002, the Prestige, a Greek-owned oil tanker, finally broke in half and sank after drifting for six days off Spain’s northwestern Galician coast in rough weather. The tanker’s slow and painful demise released some 50,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic, causing one of the worst environmental disasters ever to hit Europe.

The international clean-up effort lasted over two months, but large swathes of Spanish and French coastline were affected by the spill. The region’s seabirds, fish stocks, marine mammals and coastal plant life were all decimated by the disaster.

A year after the Prestige disaster, controversy and anger still surround the break-up of the tanker, as environmental pressure groups and politicians continue to call for action and compensation.

French report blames Spain

Ölverschmutzer Strand in Galicien, Tankerunglück in Spanien
Thousands of beaches were polluted.Image: AP

At the heart of the controversy is an on-going row between France and Spain. The argument over who’s to blame erupted while the stricken tanker was still lurching precariously in the sea but gathered momentum when the ship sank and its slick reached southern France.

The dispute has now escalated further due to a recently published judicial report commissioned by French parliamentarian Philippe de Villiers the Vendee region which was affected by the spill.

Highly critical of the Spanish government, the report claims that Madrid’s actions made matters worse by preventing emergency crews from boarding the tanker until they had agreed to tow it out to sea. "Good sense should have told them to bring it into the port of La Coruna" to prevent the oil spreading so far, according to the report.

Spanien Tanker Prestige
Image: AP

Instead, the Prestige broke up 210 kilometers (130 miles) off the Spanish coast and eventually polluted more than a thousand beaches from France to Portugal. De Villiers said he would begin legal action against the Spanish government in view of the enormity of Spain’s liability revealed by the report.

Calls for more EU involvement

French President Jacques Chirac called on Europe to do more to protect its coastlines from devastating oil spills similar to the Prestige disaster. The EU last month adopted rules banning single-hull tankers carrying heavy fuel oil from EU ports. However, despite the new legislation, nothing can in principle prevent an old tanker passing through the English Channel between Britain and France, as long as it does not dock.

The EU will press for the single-hull ban to be implemented worldwide when members of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) meet in London in December. The European Union hopes that the IMO will adopt the ban, but doubts remain as to whether sanctions would be as stringently enforced outside the EU and the United States.

Ölverschmutzer Vogel, Spaniens Küste droht eine Ölpest
Image: AP

Environmentalists are also calling for more to be done to prevent another disaster on the scale of the Prestige. Greenpeace warned on the first anniversary of the storm that sealed the Prestige’s fate that something similar could easily happen again unless tankers are subject to tougher rules and penalties.

Lack of protection

The environmental group announced in a statement on November 13 that shipping companies would only tighten security sufficiently if they were obliged to pay for all the damages caused by the oil slicks themselves.

"A year on, the sea is still without protection," Lopes de Uralde, director of Greenpeace Spain, told a Madrid press conference, ahead of the first anniversary of the tanker’s sinking. "After the Prestige, no legal measure has been adopted which would guarantee that a similar catastrophe does not happen again on Europe’s coasts."

Ölpest in Spanien
Image: AP

Another group, Friends of the Earth, warned that victims of the Prestige disaster -- in particular those fishing companies which saw their stocks depleted by the ensuing pollution -- may never receive full compensation, as the international body for oil pollution compensation hasn't the funds to pay their claims.

The executive committee of the London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund decided in May 2003 to limit payments in respect to the Prestige to 15 percent of their value, because claims are likely to exceed the amount of compensation available.