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03 IV-2004: 06


oil 7

Reporting in progress - expect updates

the politics of irresponsibility —
Can the Spanish authorities be trusted?
the Prestige, March 2003

30.03.2003 As French beaches are opened (no contact with the water allowed), the Spanish authorities, yet again, are being criticised by their scientists, this time for an irresponsible decision regarding fishing.

A technical journal from the University of Santiago de Compostela reports that scientists would not have recommended the reopening of Spanish fishing and shellfish activities in the majority of the zones affected by the Prestige oil spill, until there were indisputable analyses available that the waters concerned were no longer polluted. Of course, the fish and molluscs will also need to be checked properly.

Fishing has been authorised in many regions of Galician waters since early in March, even though the sunken tanker continues to leak oil, and deposits are still being collected from the sea floor close to the coast.

23.03.2003 Closing in on the culprits The investigating commission [article in French] in Galicia will hear evidence from three members of the crisis cabinet created on 13 November 2003. It was these three who later decided to send the already damaged tanker, the Prestige, into the teeth of a Force 9 storm, with result that it broke and then sank in over two miles (3.5 km) depth of water. The three are

  • José Luis Lopez Sors, director general of the Merchant Navy,
  • Arsenio Fernandez de Meas, the central government attaché in Galicia,
  • Angel del Real Abella, harbour master of La Coruna.

Although Nunca Máis (Never Again), the Galician campaign group born out of this mess, thinks that there is sufficient evidence for the three to be closely questioned, we can expect the central Spanish government, and their minions, to keep tryng to minimise their responsibility.

A new Spanish web-site, independant of central and local Galician government sources, has appeared. It provides information and links concerning the Prestige sinking. This site [unfortunately in Spanish only] is created by members of Spanish universities that the Spanish government claimed to have asked for expert advice. The site includes, amongst much else,

  • the letter by 422 Spanish scientists published in Science,
  • reports on the consequences of oil spills and the significance for the Prestige,
  • photographs of clean-up operations,
  • and information for volunteers.

17.03.2003 The forgotten people
Four months after filthy, clinging oil started arriving on the beaches of Galicia, as far as the regional and central governments are concerned, the trouble has finished. Beaches are ‘clean’, sea fishing is permitted in some sectors—this trying time is over and done with.

Except it is not.

The Galician fishermen have hired their own scientists at the University of Coruna, to assess the cleanliness of the waters and whether the shellfish are no longer contaminated. The fishermen say, this is like BSE, one has to be very sure, and sure some more, before trusting that the local sea produce is safe to eat. The scientists point out how tricky it is to ensure that the shellfish are truly clean, given some of the hydrocarbons are carcinogenic, that is capable of mutating DNA. Fishermen collect lumps of oil from the bottom of the bays, the spider crabs have oil-soiled claws, and the goose barnacles on the rocks are also tainted.

The Galicians cleaning their rocks—still—are disheartened that now no-one, other than the occasion foreign reporter comes to visit,. They have not seen a Spanish TV crew since .... too long.

I suppose the Spanish authorities think, if everyone shuts up, the whole horrible, embarrassing disaster will just go away, or most of the voters in Madrid forget about it.

12.03.2003 Today, in the Galician Regional Parliament, the opposition Nationalist and Socialist Parties intend to appeal to the Constitutional Council, if the ruling Popular Party go ahead with their intention to dissolve the Commission of Investigation during full parliamentary session. The PP, who also run Spain’s central government, have an absolute majority in the Galician parliament.

The Popular Party (PP) say they will dissolve the investigatory commission because the nationalists are using it “as a smokescreen” to hide their internal divisions, while the socialists tag along. Meanwhile, the opposition parties say that such dissolution is just a legal subterfuge by the PP to liquidate an inquiry that is asking awkward questions.

The Socialist Party (PSOE) is not participating in the Commission of Investigation as a protest to central government’s decision to forbid those “in high positions”and those running “family companies connected to the State administration” from being witnesses.

Previously, the central PSOE have denounced the government for trying to prevent University scientists from appearing as witnesses at the Galician Commission of Inquiry; like, for instance, Professor Pablo Serret of Vigo University. He has previously criticised the government for towing the stricken tanker away from the coast, and for not consulting scientists.

Remember that the central Spanish government has repeatedly refused to convene a Commission of Inquiry itself, for determining those responsible for an ecological disaster worse than that of the Exxon Valdez.

05.03.2003 French objectivity and Spanish official fantasy
A French official report, by the Office for Accidents at Sea, published today:

  • The likelihood that the Prestige was hit by a floating object was “very probable”;
    however, a design fault of the internal dividers, common in many tankers of that size, meant that there was a “conceptual” structural weakness;
  • there had been various insufficient, or uncompleted, repairs;
  • towing the ship, and righting its list to port, provoked supplementary stresses on a structure that was [apparently] already starting to break up;
  • but it was the order by the Spanish that the tanker be dragged in full storm, during 6 days, that was its death knell.
    [Note this news item comes from a Spanish source and, as such, must be looked at with scepticism, if not downright mistrust.]

A Spanish minister reckons that the oil still leaking from the Prestige (officially 1 or 2 tonnes a day, but there are other reports of 5 tonnes a day) is “disappearing” because “in 10 to 20 hours, it dissolves into the water”, or evaporates into the air. The stuff that is arriving on Galician shores is ‘old’ oil, has been in the sea for a month and, because it has degraded, will cause minimal damage.

Obviously, Spanish government officials have never heard of ‘the conservation of matter’, nor do they understand that the severe toxicity in the oil will probably have just gone somewhere else, if it is no longer in the degraded pollutant. Nor do they remember that oil and water do not mix, let alone one ‘dissolving’ in the other!

A lawyer at Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, in Galicia, thinks that the silence of Madrid is intolerable.

“They are manipulating the press, forbidding Spanish reporters to use the phrase black tide, while the representatives, both of the Aznar government and locally, never stop minimising the drama.

“We have to read foreign newspapers to know how things are evolving.”

“The citizen’s movement, which is growing rapidly, with hundreds of thousands of people and including more than 300 associations allied to Nunca Mais (Never Again in Galician). You can find everyone in our ranks – from a Nobel Prize winner to civil guard trade unionists, by way of fishermen, writers, shellfish collectors, actors and scientists.”

“Madrid has refused to create a commission of enquiry, we want to know the truth and to demonstrate the responsibility of the Spanish State and the Galician authorities.”

In the light of the ever-accumulating evidence, it is clear that the Spanish government, as well as the local Galician ‘Junta’,are lying in order to avoid their responsibilities for this enormous disaster, while assiduously trying to minimise its effects.

Related material

the Prestige debacle (March 2003)
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last updated

Related material

the Prestige debacle (March 2003)






Reporting in progress - expect updates

Sandcastles – yes, swimming – no
—the Prestige, March 2003
Latest reports  

23.03.2003 French mayors may now decide when they will let the public—sand-castle-building holiday-makers—back on the beaches; but bathing is still forbidden. The general consensus is that the beaches, at least superficially, are the cleanest they have been for years.

One method for clearing all the little bits of oil mixed into the sand has been to bundle the whole lot up into giant muslin-type bags, and let the wave action of the tide wash out the sand, while the oil remains trapped in the bags.

Meanwhile, the fishing ships off the southern Aquitaine coast do their daily fishing for oil – a catch of 3.5 tonnes, of which two thirds is large bits of rubbish and wood – is fairly typical. At the same time, no oil is being observed out to sea.

On the Spanish ‘front’, oil still oozes from the wreck, beaches in Galicia continue to be cleaned – the Spanish Development minister asserting that they will all be clean by June 1st. Oil still floats north of Santander and Bilbao, necessitating Spanish oil-fishing duty.

cleaned beaches, but off limits
© 2003,

Cleaned, but off limits

Xuntia de Galicia (Click on Xeral, under Situación Actual. For detailed maps of the Gallician coast, click on Rias.) This site has regular updates on where pollution from the Prestige has been observed.
CEDRE This page has links to daily maps showing aerial observation of pollution, and the progress on cleaning up the Aquitaine coast. Unfortunately, the page is often a day behind.
Prefecture Maritime d’Aquitaine regular reports on cleaning the seas off France and northern Spain
IFREMER (Reports on the Nautile.)

Institut Hidrografico (this site has not been updated since 06.01.03)

Prestige oil on the beach
© 2003,

Prestige oil on the beach

Slow return to life....
17.03.2003 Biarritz beach is the latest Aquitaine beach to be re-opened to the public, by order of the town’s mayor. The sea is till off limits, everyone awaiting an announcement from the Prefect (the central government’s representative in a department).

Lumps of oil have been spotted south-west of South Brittany, while there is still oil to collect off the North Spanish coast. The short-term prediction is for winds to blow it north-east, away from the coasts.

Meanwhile, back at the cliff-face on the ‘Coast of Death’ in Galicia ....

Four months after the first oil arrived from the Prestige, tar-covered fishermen and their wives still scrape at inaccessible rocks with trowels. A Spanish military helicopter lifts off the huge white sack of oil, it is impossible to use any other method.

They have collected about 2,500 tonnes of oil from the rocks in those four months and there is still much more to clean off.

The beaches look clean....
Cleaning up has all but finished on French beaches.

The beaches of Les Landes will be opened again to the public on the 1st April, after the big equinoctial tides and in good time for the Easter holiday visitors.

The Spanish Minister of the Environment is convinced that Galician beaches would be “perfectly clean” by 1st June. The Galician Junta says that 69% (498) of their beaches are now clean. 20% (145 beaches) still have some oil on them, while 11% (80 beaches) have some oil on the rocks.

When the weather permits, ’planes and helicopters spot floating patches of oil in the Bay of Biscay (Gulf de Gascogne) for French and Spanish fishermen to fish out.

2.1 tonnes of oil from the Prestige were fished from near the Ile d’Yeu, north of La Rochelle, while oil-balls were seen off Charente-Maritime, further north still. The oil collected today from near Finistere in Brittany (at the entrance to the English Channel) has gone for analysis, to determine whether more Prestige oil has drifted that far.

Collections of oil pancakes were spotted yesterday off the North Spanish coast near Santander. Some of the oil was dispersed and some was in shoals of various sizes: 30 bits of 2 metre diameter in one case and in another, 100 bits of 1 metre diameter.

As always, now that the escaping oil flow has been reduced to 1 to 2 tonnes a day, where the wreck sunk, there is an ‘iridescence’. The escaping oil, for the most part, emulsifies with the water before reaching the surface.

05.03.2003 Although the northern Aquitaine beaches are now open again to the public, those of Les Landes and Pyrenees Atlantique are still forbidden.

Regularly, teams of professionals are still digging up and removing lumps of fuel oil from the sandy beaches.

The French are preparing the oil sludge from the sea and beaches, in order to recycle it by burning it in furnaces used for cement manufacture.

Fishing ships patrol the Aquitaine and Basque coasts, still fishing out oil, though in smaller quantities.

The Portugal current changes direction in April (to go southwards), so do the prevailing winds (from west to eastwards). Thus, the various authorities hope that the days of oil-fishing and beach cleanup will end, as the sea and winds sweep the remaining oil into the wide Atlantic and thence, who knows where.

Related material
The politics of irresponsibility (March 2003)
the Prestige debacle (Feb 2003)
The politics of irresponsibility (Feb 2003)
The politics of irresponsibility (Jan 2003)
The Prestige debacle, part 2 (Nov. & Dec.2002)
The politics of irresponsibility (Nov & Dec 2002)

The Prestige debacle, part 2 (Nov. & Dec.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 23.03.2003


Related material
The politics of irresponsibility (March 2003)

the Prestige debacle
(Feb 2003)

The politics of irresponsibility (Feb 2003)


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