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the politics of irresponsibility —
Spanish funny accounting
the Prestige, February 2003

23.02.2003 Everybody, including the ship owners, thinks that the Prestige was carrying a cargo of 77,000 tonnes residual fuel oil. But the Spanish authorities know better, there was only 70,000 tonnes. This means that, of course, there is only 8,000 tonnes still swilling in the sea (see here for a more orthodox calculation). To be diplomatic, the French Prefecture at Brest, who are supervising the marine cleaning, are saying there is about 10,000 tonnes still at large, in contrast to the ‘scientifically’ calculated 15,000 tonnes.

Now, there is an international petroleum organisation, FIPOL, who should, in due course, provide some compensation. France has said that their portion will go to help compensate the individuals who have been affected by the spill – the oyster growers and seaside businesses. Spain wants their portion to go to .... the Spanish State!

The preferred Spanish option of dealing with the 38, 000 tonnes of fuel oil remaining in the wreck, is the option of pumping out the oil [Spanish animation]. It is estimated that this will cost between 200 and 300 million euros [roughly equivalent to US dollars]. But, of course, no-one has ever pumped oil from such a depth. The Erika, which sunk and was pumped out, was only at 120 metres depth, not 3,500 metres or 2.2 miles down.

By the way, at least 100 thousand vocal demonstrators took part in the rally against the Spanish authorities in Madrid today. They called for the resignation of those responsible for the catastrophe: José María Aznar (Prime Minister) – “100% guilty”;
Manuel Fraga (central government representative in Galicia) – “100% absent”, because he had gone hunting;
Francisco Álvarez Cascos ( Regional Development Minister,who was also hunting when the tanker sank) – “100% high-handed” for making remarks such as, “no country is prepared for events like the Prestige” (not so). And then, how many countries actively cause a disaster like the Prestige?

22.02.2003 Organisers of Nunca Máis (Never again) expect that 1200 to 1300 coaches will take thousands to Madrid on Sunday to demonstrate against the Spanish government's management of the Prestige catastrophe. The Secretary General of the PSOE (Socialist Party of Spain, the opposition party in parliament), many artists, writers and actors will take part, some performing satirical sketches.

Greenpeace has asked the European Union to sue the Spanish government for breaching the EU’s waste laws.

“Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Rodrigo Rato, appearing on TV yesterday, defended his government's actions.
"In similar cases in Spain and abroad, a ship leaking oil has never been put in a port or the mouth of a river. That's a decision no one would take, for obvious reasons," he told Telemadrid.”

Never? Obvious reasons? One wonders what the perfidious Spanish government is now trying to hide.

Greenpeace has also asked the Institute of Medical Investigation to make an epidemiological study to determine the impact of pollution on those who have been in contact with the toxic oil from the Prestige.

The European Parliament’s Commission of enquiry will hold its first audience on the 19th and 20th March. Several Spanish ministers will attend to determine who (or several whos) was responsible for the accident and to analysis the level of economic, social and environmental damage. The salvage company Smit, the ship owners Universe Maritime, the classification company American Bureau of Shipping and Captain Scapegoat (Captain Mangouras) have also be called, as well as the Harbour master of La Coruna in Galicia. Despite the Opposition’s constant demands for an investigation, the Spanish government continues to bluster and evade.

19.02.2003 A Spanish judge has placed under investigation three top bureaucrats concerned with the handling of the Prestige before the Spanish caused it to sink.

“It is the first time since the oil spill polluted hundreds of kilometres of coastline that senior officials have been put under official investigation, a legal situation in Spain that is a step short of being charged with a crime.”

“Investigating magistrate Francisco Javier Collazo, in the northwest town of Corcubion, ordered the three senior officials to appear in court to respond to questions about why officials ordered the ship out to open sea after it cracked its hull on November 13 near the coast, starting the oil spill.”

It appears that Spanish justice may be more objective than the the central Spanish government.

“The minister of development, Francisco Alvarez Cascos, on Tuesday defended the senior officials, two of whom reported to his ministry. He said it was "unreal" that they should be under suspicion for the prestige catastrophe, news reports said.”

Remember, it was not the captain who ordered the ailing tanker be dragged hither and thither in dangerous seas as it bled oil. It was not the captain who ordered the ship be taken out into deep waters during a tempest. It was Spanish government officials who did this, having refused the vessel entry into harbours where its cargo could have been safely transferred. Yet Spanish ministers call it unreal that their staff are called to answer for their actions.

Meanwhile, Captain Scapegoat, at last released from prison, is exiled in Spain, unable to return to his native Greece, because the bail requirement that he report daily to the Galician police.

It is general election time this May in Spain. The Galician regional government is pouring money into their province to convince their voters that they should keep the politicians who have caused an environmental and economic disaster here, and to stop the threatened exodus of those who can no longer earn their living by fishing. Such an exodus has happened before. Galicia is/was a stronghold of Spain’s ruling party.

Funds have been set up to help students whose parents have had their livelihood ruined by the spill. Money is going into the fishing industry, into developing infrastructures (transport: roads and tunnels; railway link to Portugal; power: upgrading the electicity supply system), into providing jobs and training; and into cultural festivals.

Can the Spanish be honest?
Although the amount of oil purported to have escaped from the poor Prestige is generally quoted by the Spanish as being about 20 to 25 thousand tonnes, the French ecology minister, Roselyne Bachelot, in an interview with Sud-Ouest (a French regional newspaper) confirms that half the toxic cargo has escaped from the wreck—that is, over 35 thousand tonnes.

On the exorbitant claims for compensation made by the Spanish, Mme Bachelot comments that there is nothing to show that one country will be better compensated than another. She also pointed out that claims will have to be justified. For instance, the French authorities have paperwork proving the money paid to local councils and other organisations for equipment and cleanup work done.

15.02.2003 If we cannot pump the oil out, we will encase the two halves of the wreck, asserts the Spanish government. But pumping has never been attempted at such a depth; if it is possible, it will have to engineered by remote-control. As for enclosing the wreck, in time the enclosure (in steel or concrete) will corrode, restarting the problem of escaping oil. But no project will start until June, so probably leaving an nasty expensive mess for the next government.

Talking of money, the Spanish government is trying to claim 1,000 million euros (1 billion €) compensation for their cleanup operations. The French estimate that their cleanup costs are a ‘mere’ 10 to 15 million €. [Merco Press: Special compensations in Galicia postponed]

13.02.2003 Please note that reports from official Spanish sources exhibit heavy propaganda bias in favour of the Spanish government, while playing down the negative aspects of this catastrophic disaster.

  • Yesterday, about 5,000 people, 26% of whom were volunteers, cleaned various sections of the Gallician and North Spanish coasts. Over 3,600 were in Galicia, while smaller contingents worked in the other provinces.
  • The cleanup operations on the Gallician Peninsula appear to have gained some degree of control over the sandy areas of this coast.
  • 80 tonnes of oil have been pulled from the depths in the Atlantic Islands National Park by 60 divers.
  • There are ‘predictions’ that the rocky areas will be cleaned by the Spring.

A total of 1123 people are reported to have health problems after cleaning up oil from North Spanish beaches. It is unclear from our sources what proportion of workers this number represents, or over what period these cases occurred. Our guess is that the total number of workers is more than five thousand, and these cases reported have occurred since the start of cleanup operations.
Symptoms reported include:

Eye irritation 14.4% Skin irritation 6.6%
Headache 13.75% Backache 6.6%
Throat irritation 12% ? because of cuts 4.65%
Difficulty breathing 10% Abdominal pain 4.5%
‘Injury’ 9.3% Deterioration of consciousness 4%
Nausea or vomiting 9.2% Loss of appetite 2.2%

“The scientific committee set up to decide what best to do with the sunken Prestige oil tanker has proposed that the oil remaining in the tanker at a depth of 3,600m be removed. They say that such a complex operation would need the skills of several specialist companies and would cost some 200 million Euros. The committee ruled out [...] two other proposals of dynamiting the ship and collecting the fuel on the surface, or burying the wreck in a tomb of concrete.”

It seems this committee are suggesting a modification of the most anomalous suggestion – pull up the two sections of the wreck from the sea floor and then empty them out. Now that suggestion truly highlights the stupidity of the Spanish government’s actions: to go to all the bother of breaking up and the sinking the tanker, only to then haul it up again!

08.03.2003 Spanish political prisoner released
eighty-two days after imprisonment

The London-based managing agents for the marine insurers of the Prestige have posted the three million Euros (€ 3,000,000) blackmail demand – sorry, bail – for the hostage – sorry, alleged criminal – taken – sorry, legally arrested – by the Spanish authorities five days before the Prestige broke in two and sank.

Of the bail, Captain Scapegoat’s lawyer says, “It is an absolutely exorbitant bond. Completely out of place. Even if it were a crime worthy of nine years, it would be an exorbitant bond”.
Meanwhile, the international tanker owners’ association Intertanko called the bail illegal, saying it violates the master’s right to reasonable bail under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (Part V, Article 73.2).

And now Spanish government lies

And we read elsewhere,
[for context, the Prestige was damaged on 13 November 2002 and broke in two, then sank on 19 November 2002]

“the [Spanish] government defends its decision as the best of a poor set of options, accusing critics of 20-20 hindsight.” PlanetArk

But ....

November 18, 2002 “ [...] Spanish authorities have refused point blank to allow the Prestige a port of shelter [...] They therefore ordered the tanker, which started listing and sustained hull damage during stormy conditions last Wednesday, to be towed into international waters 120 miles from the Spanish coast. No other ports of refuge have been offered ”

While ....

Nov. 17, 2002 [Lars Walder, a spokesman for Smit Salvage, a Dutch company trying to salvage the oil aboard the Prestige]
“said the salvage company was trying to arrange for a sheltered harbor where it could transfer fuel from the Prestige. He said the ship, which has a gash in its side of more than 32 feet, did not appear in imminent danger.”

[Walder] “said tugs towing the tanker had been ordered by Spanish authorities to stop.”
(“"With the Prestige exposed to the violent Atlantic conditions, it can be reported that the salvage team has had no option but to head south in search of calmer waters. The ship's condition is stable and the tow continues on a southerly track, with the convoy some 70 miles offshore," Dutch Salvage company Smit confirmed.” See also.)

And ....

“The Spanish government's chief representative in Galicia, Arsenio Fernandez de Mesa [...] told a news conference [...] "Our only wish is to remove this ship from the Spanish coast," he said.”

Thus, again the Spanish government tells porkies, rather than face up to its mistakes and responsibilities.

We also have suspicions that the Spanish story, of how Captain Scapegoat tried to prevent tow-cables being attached to the wounded tanker, is fiction. Certainly, this does not accord with early reports on the situation, such as,

November 13, 2002 “Its captain, first officer and chief engineer remained aboard, hoping to steer the tanker into the port of La Coruna, about 375 miles (600 kilometers) northwest of Madrid, with the aid of tugboats.”

On “Wed, 20 Nov 2002 20:19:27”, the day following the sinking of the Prestige, abelard, knowing nothing about boats and the sea, said in a public communication,

i have questions.....
1)would it not have been better to have allowed the tanker to ground when at least some of the oil could have been pumped out?
2)would it not have been better to drag the tanker into a port and then seal off the port?
3)exactly why did the spanish authorities order the tanker dragged out to sea? was it to get it out of spanish waters and thereby avoid responsibility?
4)my investigations tell me that this stuff will now eventually resurface...others say it may remain sunk in solidified form.... (due to cold and pressure)....but will it....oil is lighter than water....will metal rust in those conditions.....what other 'deterioration' is possible?

Each one of these concerns have proved to be justified, as step by step, more information has surfaced. If a rank amateur could ask these questions immediately after the sinking of the tanker, why then did the Spanish government, with all its resources and advice to hand, instead cause the sinking of the Prestige and theis dreadful ecological disaster?

We think that the answer is simple—it is summed up entirely in the quote from the Spanish government’s chief representative in Galicia, Arsenio Fernandez de Mesa, cited above.

"Our only wish is to remove this ship from the Spanish coast"

In other words, total, selfish, ignorant irresponsibility. The fully justified criticisms of the Spanish government have absolutely nothing to do with hindsight, and everything to do with wilful recklessness.

And still there is no proper governmental or EU inquiry.

05.03.2003 Eighty-two days, and counting,
into one of the world’s major peace-time disasters

At last, a major news service is now starting to tell the truth, and to spread the word about the disgraceful behaviour of the Spanish government concerning the sinking of the Prestige, and about their treatment of Captain Scapegoat.

With all the leaks in the Prestige stopped for the moment, it is time to wait for the Spanish government to decide what (if anything!) to do with the wreck in its waters.
Recall that estimates are that there is still twice as much oil in the sunken vessel as has leaked, and that the wreck is expected to deteriorate so, at best, this is a temporary respite. By cleverly sinking the ship in 3500 metres, the Spanish authorities have presented the salvage industry with a problem beyond anything they have ever before achieved.

04.02.2003 Spanish scandal rapidly turning into EU scandal.
How many reports will it take?

A second preliminary report has been published [direct link not yet available], this time by the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMA), which damns actions taken by the Spanish authorities:

“It is now clear that if decisive action had been taken at an early stage to move the ship to a more sheltered location, the ship and its cargo would almost certainly have been saved and any pollution would have been minimal.”

(Also see here for more on the BMA report.)

Meanwhile, attempts to set up a European parliamentary commission of inquiry have been twice thwarted by the parties of the right in the European Parliament. One theory is that this is a political manoeuvre to protect the current Spanish government. Another possibility is “if we protect your back, you will protect ours” in the game of political self-interest. It is noted that there was no such eagerness to cover the British government from the hugely expensive consequences of BSE. If compensation were to be (wrongly) paid by the EU to Spain, of course it would come out, primarily, of the pockets of UK and German taxpayers, both countries that currently have left-wing governments.

In this context, however, it is well to remember that there is already a precedent for Spain paying for their errors regarding oil spills. In December 1992, the Aegean Sea, a double-hulled tanker, was grounded as it entered the Galician port of La Coruna. Both the master of the vessel and the pilot provided by the port were found liable. The Spanish State, being responsible for the pilot, paid half the $67 million compensation awarded.

In complete contrast, on the day of the sad crash of the Columbia space shuttle, two independent inquiries were set up in the United States to discover why that tragedy occurred.

And still Captain Scapegoat languishes in a Spanish jail, imprisoned for an environmental disaster which he did not cause. Naturally, the Greek authorities are incensed by the dishonest Spanish attempts to shift blame onto the 68 year-old master of the Prestige.

03.02.2003 Rather than Spain attempting to sue the ship owner, the oil transporting agent, the captain of the Prestige, and anyone else they can think of on whom to shift blame; it is the ship owner, the oil transporting agent and Captain Scapegoat who should be receiving compensation for lost goods, lost liberty and damaged professional reputations.

29.01.2003 Captain Scapegoat is a political prisoner:
the Spanish government claims of 'innocence' continue to unwind

  1. Reports, made after the Prestige was damaged and later after it had sunk, state that the vessel may well have been hit by an object, shed by a cargo ship proceeding the Prestige in the shipping lane off Cap Finister. At least three ships had recently lost cargo in waves up to 8 meters high. After being damaged, the Prestige, although weakened by the consequent entry of water, was still capable of reaching a port. The refusal of the Spanish authorities to allow this, and their decision to force the boat away from the coast, dragged the ship into the teeth of a storm. The Prestige sank six days later. These reports are from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), the classification company that certified the seaworthiness of the Prestige.

    A detailed technical report from ABS will be handed over to the European Commission in mid-February and, in the absence of any other investigation, this report is the only document the Commission will take as credible evidence of the ship’s physical state.

    The Prestige, built in Japan in 1976, had permission to carry oil to the United States until January 2015, if the cargo was offloaded at special facilities. (The United States enforces much higher standards than Europe.)

    The storm off Cape Finister during that week last November sank 17 out of 20 trimarans sailing in the Route de Rhum Race. The Prestige, having shipped water that filled one lateral hold, became severely overloaded, unmanoeuvrable and stressed; another hold had to be filled to balance the 25% list, compounding the problems.

    Marine professionals comment that the Prestige must have been in very good repair to have taken six days, in those weather conditions, to break up and sink. In other words, the Prestige was not a near wreck, as the Spanish government and others have continually alleged while they attempt to shift responsibility for their idiocy and culpable negligence.

    The Prestige was not a floating dustbin.

  2. Over 400 Spanish marine and meteorological scientists have signed a letter published in Science magazine, saying that the Spanish government had not approached them until after the Prestige had sunk. Further, the scientists say that the spilt oil arriving on 900 km of coast is directly related to the decision made to tow the tanker south-east away from the coast. The Spanish scientists also object to the unjustifiable defamation of their professional reputations. The supposed report on which the Spanish authorities claimed to have based their decision has not yet surfaced.

  3. Another report [direct link not yet available] states that the sunken Prestige will continue to corrode and decay during up to 40 years, leaking all the while.

    The Spanish government does not intend make a decision, nor start work, on a definitive solution to its problem 3,500 metres below the sea until ... the summer. Strangely, this will be after the general elections in May. Perhaps the current government look forward to being voted out, so another administration will have to cope with one of the worst oil disasters of all time.

29.01.2003 With a growing world-wide recognition that Spain’s actions to avoid dealing responsibly with this disaster led to a catastrophe worse than that of Exxon Valdez in 1989, the Spanish government is blaming poor poll ratings on the media doing what the media should—reporting problems and their sources.

As part of the Spanish government’s attempt to improve their standing with their voters, Iberia, the Spanish airline, has been given permission to offer free flights (from within Spain) to Galicia for up to 10,000 cleanup volunteers a week.

By contrast, French doctors are refusing to supply any more pre-cleanup medical certificates, fearing that they might then be held responsible for any illnesses or deaths resulting from the effects of the highly toxic residual fuel oil that the Prestige throws into the sea. Thus, it is mainly professionals – military and civilian – who are cleaning up French beaches.

23.01.2003 Posturing instead of leadership
The European Commissioner for Transport and Energy wants to change the international law of the sea, so that those involved in polluting the sea, from captains to ship owners, are prosecuted.

Strangely, Loyola de Palacio did not mention irresponsible nations in this list. But then the prime irresponsible nation in the firing line at present is Spain, and Ms de Palacio is Spanish.

Nor was there any mention of the responsibility of the European Union for allowing the problem of single-hulled ships to continue for many a year past, or for recently proposing that the single-hull problem continue until 2010, instead of until 2015. Neither can be heard much talk about reducing dependence on ever-depleting oil resources.

20.01.2003 Greece accuses Spain of making a scapegoat of the Prestige’s captain

“Greek Merchant Marine Minister George Anomeritis said Spain had only itself to blame for the spill and was acting like a "Third World country" in its treatment of arrested captain Apostolos Mangouras.”

“Arrested and charged with hampering rescue efforts, Mangouras is in jail in Spain with bail set at three million euros.

“ "He was the one who asked to stay on board and try to help out in rescue operations. He didn't sink the ship. But now he is charged with blocking rescue efforts," Anomeritis said.”

14.01.03 A good summary article from the United States, reports that Spanish government is being targeted by locals in Galicia as the main culprit of the ecological and economic disaster being wrought on them, their fishing industry and the Galician shoreline. The government’s refusal to follow the advice of both the Prestige’s captain and the salvage company Smit has resulted in a catastrophe worse than that of the Exxon Valdez in Alaskan waters.

But it is not just the Galicians who recognise the Spanish government’s wilful incompetence. French newspapers are not just saying sue the shipping company, but they also suggest that the Spanish and Galician authorities be brought to book for dispersing and aggravating the pollution from the Prestige.

Meanwhile, Captain Scapegoat remains in a Spanish jail; and PM Aznar does his best to distract by ‘reforming’ Spain’s legal system or by, instead, drawing attention to the local Basque separatist campaign, called terrorism.

13.01.03 The mayor of Bordeaux, Alan Juppé, and 20 members of his city council, including Hugues Martin (European M.P.), were on the beach of Petit-Nice, at La Teste-de-Buche in the Archachon Basin at the weekend, helping to clean up oil pollution from the Prestige, using rakes, lances and plastic sacks. Like all other volunteers, they had each shown their medical certificate and were kitted out in yellow combinations, boots and gloves. M. Juppé also sported a black Landaise beret.

This civic behaviour must be contrasted with that of both the local and national Spanish governments. In a new revelation, it has been discovered that the masks provided for the volunteers in Galicia, made of paper, do not filter the gases given off by the polluting oil. These masks are sold by a company belonging to a relative of the Galician regional President. I wonder whether UK politicians will be found at the water-front if this mess reaches the British coast?

[A local yak reporting]
Oil found in the Ile de Ré and the Ile d’Oleron has come from nearby tankers cleaning and discharging their tanks, ‘piggy-backing’ on pollution arriving from the wreck of the Prestige in Spanish waters.

The French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, today visited zones in Gironde, already affected by oil from the Prestige. He has released a “first envelope” of 50 million euros to help pay for the clean-up.

Meanwhile, the French President, Jacques Chirac, commented vehemently against opportunist rogue ship-owners cleaning their tanks, but also made no comment on the actual origin and cause of the major pollution from the Prestige, caused by the decisions of Chirac’s European Union colleague, Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, and his government.

At the same time, on instructions from the Palais d’Elyssée (the presidential palace), a legal file is being assembled in preparation for suing for costs and damages. The obvious body to sue is the Spanish government, not the ship owners or its captain.

2.01.03 48 days and Prestige oil is on the French coast
Now France starts to pay for the Spanish government’s mistakes as oil, identified as such by two French laboratories, arrives on the French Atlantic coast.

On the 17 km stretch of Gironde coast under close surveillance, ‘ pancakes’ up to 15 cm across have been sighted, although there are many smaller lumps (some only finger-sized) amongst the abundant winter flotsam and jetsam of branches, twigs and plastic rubbish thrown up by the seas. Meanwhile, patches of oil have been spotted to the south on the Landes coast at the ‘Courant d’Huchet’, a sensitive natural site, and to the north on the Ile de Ré.


related material
The Prestige: Latest reports (Feb. 2003)
The Prestige: Latest reports (Jan. 2003)
The politics of irresponsibility (Nov & Dec 2002)
The Prestige debacle, part 2 November & December 2002
Another potential ecological oil mess (Nov. 2002)

World oil resources
World oil reserves and oil-based fuel development
World primary energy consumption (at the end of 2001)
Oil technical information and data

the web address for this article is

last updated

related material

The Prestige: Latest reports (Feb. 2003)

The Prestige: Latest reports (Jan. 2003)

The politics of irresponsibility (Nov & Dec 2002)

The Prestige debacle, part 2 November & December 2002

Another potential ecological oil mess (Nov. 2002)

World oil resources

World oil reserves and oil-based fuel development

World primary energy consumption (at the end of 2001)

Oil technical information and data




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