Prestige Oil Spill – 2002

On November 13 2002 the Prestige, a single-hulled oil tanker registered in the Bahamas and owned by a Liberian-registered corporation, ruptured one of its tanks during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. The ship was carrying heavy fuel oil and the Captain asked the Spanish authorities to help him into port, as he feared his ship might sink.

But first Spain, then France and finally Portugal denied him entry. The Captain soon reported that a section of his hull had sheared away and oil was spilling. On November 19, the Prestige broke in half and sank, releasing more than 20 million gallons of oil. The resulting oil slick polluted thousands of kilometers of beautiful coastline in Spain and France, and sank onto the seabed in an ecologically sensitive area of coral reefs, affecting all the marine and bird life. The Galicians, whose livelihood depends on the fishing industry, were dealt, a terrible blow when all offshore fishing was banned for six months.

Thousands of volunteers organized a major clean-up operation. It was so successful that the following year Galician beaches were awarded more Blue Flags than in any of the preceding years.

The Prestige disaster is rated as even worse than that of the Exxon Valdez, not simply because the spill was larger but because the warmer waters caused higher toxicity. The Spanish government originally announced that only 17,000 tons of oil had been spilled, but by 2004 it transpired that the true figure was more than 80 per cent of the entire cargo. A study of the Mytilus galloprovincialis mussel revealed that by 2006 neither the mussels nor their environment had been restored to health. It is thought that it will take at least ten years for the ecosystem to get back to normal.

When: November 13-19 2002

Where: Bay of Biscay 250 km (155 mi) off the Galician coast of Spain

Toll: No human lives were lost, but the loss of marine and bird life is incalculable.

You should know: New oil slicks were found near the wreck of the Prestige in March 2006. It was estimated that between 16,000 and 23,000 tons of oil remained in the wreck, rather than the much lower figure given by the Spanish government, and that the microbiological agents that had been pumped into the hold to hasten the breakdown of the remaining oil had not worked, which could lead to yet another horrendous spill.

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