Prestige Oil Spill

The oil spill from the tanker Prestige, which sank off Spain in November 2002, has been far worse than previously claimed, the Spanish government has disclosed.

Environmentalists are now comparing the damage caused to that of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

More than 80 per cent of the tanker's 77,000 tonnes of fuel oil is now thought to have been spilled off Spain's north-east coast. The government initially said just 17,000 tonnes had been lost, adding that the other 60,000 tonnes would freeze and not leak from the sunken tanker.

But earlier in 2003, it announced that half of the oil had been lost, and now that figure has risen to about 63,000 tonnes.

One of the largest oil spill disasters occurred in the Galician coast of Spain in 2002. Prestige, an oil tanker carrying 77,033 metric tons of oil, sank when one of its tanks burst, spilling more than 20 million gallons of oil into the sea.

The marine ecosystem of Galicia rich in coral reefs comprising different species of sharks and birds was greatly affected. The polyaromatic hydrocarbons contained in the spilled oil poisoned plankton, fish eggs, and crustaceans and caused carcinogenic effects in fish and animals. The fishing industry also suffered heavy losses as offshore fishing had to be put on hold for the next 6 months.

The Prestige was a Greek-operated, single-hulled oil tanker, officially registered in the Bahamas, but with a Liberian-registered single-purpose corporation as the owner.

The ship had a deadweight tonnage, or carrying capacity, of approximately 81,000 tons, a measurement that put it at the small end of the Aframax class of tankers, smaller than most carriers of crude oil but larger than most carriers of refined products. It was classed by the American Bureau of Shipping and insured by the London Steam-Ship Owners' Mutual Insurance Association, a shipowners' mutual known as the London Club.

On November 13, 2002, while the Prestige was carrying a 77,033 metric tons cargo of two different grades of heavy fuel oil, one of its twelve tanks burst during a storm off Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Fearing that the ship would sink, the captain called for help from Spanish rescue workers, with the expectation that the vessel would be brought into harbour. However, pressure from local authorities forced the captain to steer the embattled ship away from the coast and head northwest.

It is unanimously regarded as the greatest ecological catastrophe ever to befall Spain. On Nov. 13, the vessel Prestige began to list 31 miles off the Galician coast of northwest Spain, with 77,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil in its hold. Its Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, contacted authorities and asked that the ship be led toward a port of refuge where the cargo could be transferred to another tanker. Instead, Spanish maritime authorities decided, against the advice of environmentalists and Galician fishermen, to tow the tanker farther out to sea. But the Prestige was already breaking apart in the rough waters, spilling 20,000 tons of fuel oil onto Spanish beaches.