news archives oil 8
the politics of irresponsibility
26.05.2003 While both French and Spanish tourist authorities boast that their beaches are cleaner than ever before (France) or that there are only a dozen or so beaches left to be cleaned (Northern Spain), eye-witnesses testify that this is untrue.
Lumps of oil are still washing up on ‘clean’ French beaches, and even into marine lakes, along the Aquitaine coast. Walking barefoot in the sand leaves feet soiled by buried toxic fuel oil. In Spain, Galician volunteers still scrape rocks sort-of-clean, one by one.
Cleaning the sand in either country is done merely by scraping and sifting the surface layer, any oil that has been buried by the surf (as is frequently the case) is not found and remains as a poisonous trap for any beach-user. Sticky oil may be scraped painstakingly from each rock and stone, but much is still left behind—jets of detergent and water just disperse the mess elsewhere. And vast quantities of oil continue to foul and clag the Galician seabed, despite professional divers having removed oil from some selected inlets.
The American Bureau of Shipping [ABS] has issued a succinct statement regarding Spain’s attempt by litigation to divert blame in the Prestige disaster.
However, as the President and Chief Operating Officer of ABS, Robert Somerville, pointed out in his submission to the public hearing held at the European Parliament on 19 March 2003,
[Note that Special Surveys occur every five years, and require the ship be put into dry dock for an extensive survey of its structure.]
As well as the normal audits made of surveys, after the Prestige sinking ABS obtained a further independent audit of its surveys of the Prestige. This page on the ABS website has links to the audit and to many other internal and external documents concerning the Prestige.
20.05.2003 Mad, sad or bad—Spanish government delusions and the real world According to the Spanish government, both locally in Galicia and centrally in Madrid,
However, these premises do not in any way accord with reality. Are Spanish politicians under collective delusions, and so mad or sad, or are they just lying to save their political sinecures, and therefore bad?
The Spanish government is going to court in New York to try and sue the Prestige’s classification company American Bureau of Shipping for 2 billion euros - for what it calls ‘fixed costs’ (services provided by the Navy and local government). This does not include damages relating to the local environment, tourism and public health.
But on what grounds? It was not the ABS who ordered a damaged large ship, leaking heavy fuel oil, be dragged up and down the Galician coast during a major storm, against all expert advice and common sense.
Premise 3: Don’t
blame us, we only run the country [Spanish link]
To this Fraga  [Spanish link], the head of the Galician government, responded, “more important matters should be discussed than either the Prestige or the war in Iraq”.
Premise 4: Everything is under control [Spanish link], the beaches are clean, you can start fishing again.
According to Fraga, “the Prestige wreck is not a serious
danger, the still leaking oil (one to two tonnes a day) is under control,
and the wreck can withstand deep sea pressures for a long time”.
Is this why the Spanish government has had to ask for the French
research submarine Nautile to “resume work on sealing
the ship's leaking hull in coming weeks”?
Meanwhile, Spanish Greenpeace [Spanish link] denounced their government’s incompetence, citing the situation on the coasts affected by the Prestige, where beaches are still not clean. Greenpeace called on the Spanish government to take up its civic ecological responsibilities regarding the 35,000 tonnes of oil still contained in the sunken hulk, two miles under the sea. According to Greenpeace, the Spanish government deliberately concealed information, and ignored the experts—the scientific community.
What of the oil [Spanish link], that is is “under control” and “disappears”?
After decomposing and losing part of its aromatic components, it descends from the water surface to the seabed, to be deposited in pancakes about 15 cms diameter on the Galician continental shelf.
Analysis of the Prestige oil [Spanish link] by the French research organisation CEDRE shows that 40% of the oil is composed of toxic and carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbons. Experts are unanimous that these will stay in the food chain. As well as the clean-up volunteers having skin and respiratory problems as a result of exposure to the oil, local inhabitants breathing in the compound could suffer from allergies or from asthma.
In fact, the oil is falling to the seabed in small drops, making a carcinogenic sediment which experts from Greenpeace have shown tends to stay in animal fats, including those of fish. Extreme caution will have to be taken with any seafoods from the region.
Figures in mid-May (after six months) now give an estimate of between 100,000 and 200,000 birds dead so far from the Prestige spill.
I can only conclude from this evidence is that the Spanish government, as well as being mad/sad, is most definitely bad—a government may not have the luxury of being this irresponsible.
Although this page from the European Environment Agency is no longer being updated, it gives a good historical summary of the Prestige disaster and its ecological impact.
11.05.2003 Pollution from Finisterre to Finistère, and who will pay? It has just come to my notice that, not only is the amount of oil spilt from the Prestige about twice as much as that from the Erika, spilt off Brittany in 1999, but the Prestige spill has so far affected the coast and seawaters of three countries: Spain, Portugal and France. (The Erika only affected one country, France, and over a much smaller length of coastline.)
Lumps (smaller) and pancakes (larger) of oil, which analysis shows to have come from the Prestige tanker sunk over 700 km/440 miles away off Cap Finisterre, are now washing up on Brittany beaches, in Finistère. Local councils, who previously had to clear up after the Erika spill, are now hurrying to clean beaches before the holiday season really starts.
The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF; FIPOL in French, FIDAC in Spanish) will give compensation that is 15% of the assessed losses claimed by the victims, currently counted as being the Spanish, French and Portuguese authorities, the various local fishing and tourist industries, and effected inhabitants. Just 15% of claims will be paid at the moment, because the IOPCF only has 171 million € / £ 130 million funds to cover the claims of something approaching 1 billion € / £7.6 million.
In the meantime, Spain intends to sue “those truly responsible for the Prestige disaster”, that is, according to Spain, the stricken Prestige’s classification company (who provide the seaworthiness licence) and the shipowner’s London insurance brokers. According to their own ‘estimates’, Spain has so far spent 328 million € in ‘general expenses’.
But, as the ship’s registration authority, the Bahamas, points out, in the first place it was Spain who forced the unhappy, leaking tanker to be dragged up and down the Galician coast, off Cap Finister, for six days in a full storm. And we know what happened next, the poor thing broke up and sank after that extended battering by powerful Atlantic storm rollers, as the Spanish government had been warned.
The Spanish government, as part of their systematic purpose of delaying real action on the 38,000 tonnes of fuel oil still in the wreck until after the elections, has again commissioned the French research submarine, Nautile, to do yet more patching on the wreck of the Prestige, leaking 3500 metres below the sea.
Scientists from the Spanish Universities of Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) and Barcelona, have released the conclusions of their recent environmental investigation into the Galician coastline affected by this filthy oil pollution.
The results in no way reflect the optimistic gloss of clean beaches that comes from local and central Spanish government. The environmental scientists have found that, although the beaches look clean superficially, there are layers of fuel oil buried beneath the ‘clean’ sand, while the rocks and cliffs (nesting place of many seabirds) cannot be truly cleaned. The sea bottom is in similar state, and the local plant ecosystem has been destabilised. There is currently no objective criteria for classifying a beach as ‘clean’.
The scientists estimate that a‘profound cleaning’ scheme, much more rigorous and complicated is necessary; instead of the current operations of scraping sand and rocks, or just leaving the sea to loosen the oil and wash it back into the water. Such deep cleaning could take between two and four years.
06.05.2003 Almost six months, and still the Prestige haunts Spain and France Southern Brittany, over 700 km (437 miles) away from the leaking wreck of the tanker Prestige, is the latest recipient of large quantities of oil from this broken ship, sunk last November off the North Spanish coast. Six South Brittany beaches have all had quantities of well-aged tar and oil-covered rubbish washed up in the last several days. Official analyses confirmed that this was not oil from an illegal tanker wash-out operation. Now the local councils must clean the beaches in haste before the holiday season fully starts.
Concerned Galician citizens demonstrated again in Santiago de Compostela, demanding that a definitive solution be found and rapid action taken regarding the polluting sunken hull off their coast. Well, of course, nothing will happen until after the municipal and regional elections later this month; maybe it will become someone else’s problem. And the (State) oil company, Repsol, contracted to remove the 40,000 or so tonnes of heavy fuel oil from the two parts of the wreck, 3500 metres (2 miles) below the sea surface, expects only to do an experimental operation in September. Meanwhile the wreck continues to leak one to two tonnes of poisonous heavy fuel oil each day.
There is meant to be a public inquiry going on in Galicia, to find out who was responsible for this major environmental and economic disaster. But it so ’public’ that practically no information finds its way into the public domain. And that includes the fate of Captain Scapegoat, still ‘under arrest’ (he has to report daily to a La Coruna police station) for acting responsibly regarding his ship and the cargo.
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24.04.2003 No new information has leaked out from the official Inquiry being held in Galicia, although the wreck of the Prestige continues to leak oil which then miraculously ‘disappears’. Well, mostly — a large slick arrived on the North Spanish coast last week, in time to chase Easter holidaymakers to the visibly clean beaches of France.
A Norwegian company, Statoil ASA, is helping the Spanish national oil company, Repsol, to work out how to empty the sunken tanker’s holds of about 40,000 tonnes of filthy fuel oil.
So, the broken wreck of the Prestige will have another year in which to continue dribbing out its foul cargo at a rate of two or so tonnes every day..
North Spanish beaches continue to be cleaned. According to official Spanish figures, of the 1,074 beaches, 764 are now clean, while 270 have oily muck on the rocks and underwater, with a further 30 beaches still to clean. Daily figures for the amounts of oil cleared up by the teams on land and at sea can be found here.
A Spanish robot submarine from Valencia will be inspecting the Galician coast to see how much Prestige oil pollution is on the sea floor, in an attempt to reassure local fishermen. The Nereus IV, able to work in depths of from 10 to 2,500 metres, will be making ten sweeps of 40 miles along the coast.Twelve lamps mounted on the sub will enable video recordings to be made, using a camera with a 5-metre viewing range. The work is expected to take 17 days.
Since the Prestige sunk last November, 15,977 birds have been found dead on Spanish and French coasts, said the Spanish government in answer to a parliamentary question at the beginning of April.
Of course, these figures are just for the birds actually found on the beaches. According to various estimates, the Spanish government’s figures could be anything from 2% to 70% of the total number of birds affected—that is, no-one knows how many birds have actually been affected.
12.04.2003 Spanish government fall-guy appointed Galicia At the Inquiry in Galicia to determine those responsible for one of the worst oil spills ever, a state prosecutor more aligned with central government has been appointed.
Next, José Luis Lopez-Sors, the Director General of the Merchant Navy, has become government fall-guy—by saying it was he alone who took the decision regarding the fate of the Prestige (as previously reported).
The only independent reports available are from the Nunca Mais lawyer present in court, as this official Inquiry is being held in private session. From these reports, the French action group, Association Aquitaine Alternatives, conclude that that the three main government witnesses—Harbour Master, DG of Merchant Navy and central Government Representative—have conferred beforehand, with the result that just one individual takes the blame.
Nor do members of Nunca Mais, the Galician victims group, agree with these witness statements. They point out that it is hardly credible that only one person, especially one who now admits having no experience of this sort of situation, would have been able to take such an important decision. (Do remember, that originally, the central Spanish government vaunted their prior ‘consultation’ of scientists.) Nunca Mais reasons that the sole reason for this defence strategy must be to absolve the Spanish government of any responsibility for the Prestige shambles.
Now to see how much more whitewash the Spanish government will attempt to splash everywhere—a change from the poisonous black oil they have smeared over the Spanish coast and abroad.
the Prefect [central government appointee] of
Les Landes (one of the three most affected
coastal French departements) has lifted the ban on sea-swimming.
Now it is up to each mayor to decide when to allow bathers into the sea.
04.04.2003 Pass the hot potato—whose fingers will be burnt? At the Commission of Investigation being held in Galicia (remember the central Spanish government dares not hold such an event), is unfolding a shameful waltz of shift the blame, duck the responsibility, avoid the awkward questions.
Like a gang of guilty schoolboys, the various irresponsible bureaucrats and politicians of Spain spin their weak defences.
The Director General of the Merchant Navy admits ordering the leaking tanker, the Prestige, out into a raging storm, where it later broke up and sank, spilling over half its 77,000 tonne cargo of poisonous heavy fuel oil, leaving the rest in its holds as a ticking time-bomb.
But no worries, it is all alright really. He did not want to risk the lives or the health of the population of Galica. He was going to prevent any more oil, than had already been split, washing up on the coast. In any case, what he had done gave more time to fight against the pollution, and he prevented all of the cargo being spilt into the sea to then pollute the beaches. Besides which, of the 40,000 tonnes of oil spilt, 30,000 tonnes have been clean up from the sea, 30 times more than was recovered with the Erika, [Let us forget that the Erika only spilt 10,000 tonnes, a quarter of the mess so far from the Prestige.] The Director General’s decision was correct, given the ship’s poor condition and its “haemorrhaging”, and the weather conditions—in similar circumstances, he would make the same decision again. Oh, and in case that was not enough to persuade the court to ignore his incompetence .... he is trying to blame Captain Scapegoat, for refusing to co-operate and follow the Director General’s orders.
Next, it is the turn of the Central government representative:
Back to the Director General:
[Excuse me, I thought the various official bodies consulted ‘scientists’ before making decisions. Perhaps I missed something somewhere.]
Anyway, it was the Harbour Master of La Coruna who was in charge of the actually towing out of the tanker, and he knows what he’s doing. If there was a problem, then the towing company, Smit, the ship’s owners and the ship’s classification company would have reacted. [Umm, Smit did. As for the other two, their representative on the spot, Captain Scapegoat, did.]
Besides, says some technical ‘expert’ witness, towing ships out to sea has worked in all other disasters of the Galician coast. [Umm, but at least two of these ‘disasters’ took place within the port of La Coruna. So of what exactly is this ‘expert’ speaking?]
So now we can all be reassured. The Director General of the Merchant Navy made the right decision to send the Prestige to its messy death in 3500 metres of fish-filled ocean. It was not his fault, nor that of central government, let alone that of the Harbour Master, that Captain Scapegoat was trying to take the obviously correct action of anchoring the ship inshore, in order to prevent his vessel falling apart and spilling a large proportion of its cargo.
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© abelard, 2003, 04 april
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