Prestige nightmare still haunts spanish government 18 years later (Spain)

YRE Competition 2020
Litter Less Campaign
15-18 years

The forgotten successful rock-cleaning method

13th of November 2002, the wind is howling and a storm is coming like an ominous threat of what’s to come: rain, lightning, thunder and the unexpected. Nothing noteworthy for the Costa da Morte (Death Coast) in northwestern Spain, but one event will transform this storm into the disaster of the century, poison spilling into the Atlantic Ocean in the form of fuel oil. The viscous, dark substance covering the clear blue sea with a blanket of darkness. A fortnight after, the ship finally sank 3,500 meters down to the ocean floor, 130 nautical miles off Spain's coast. The culprit, a single-hulled tank steamer called Prestige, bound for Singapore with more than 77,000 tonnes of fuel oil on board. The consequences, Spain and Portugal’s worst ecological disaster to date, 76,000 m3 of oil spilled in total. So, why did the Spanish government ignore the solution scientists presented?

Before the tragedy occurred, the French, Spanish and Portuguese Governments repeatedly refused to allow the vessel to dock in other to avoid pollution of their coasts. This selfishness and lack of foresight is what many experts cite to have been a huge mistake. Furthermore, the decision taken by Spanish authorities to tow the damaged vessel to deeper offshore waters has been described as the reason why the vessel ended up sinking and why such a large area was affected. While the Spanish government was cleared of all criminal responsibility during the 2012 trial, the Spanish people still can’t forget the image of thousands of volunteers on the coasts fishing out oil with gloved hands and all their might. 

After disaster had struck, most of the damage had already been done, 22,000 birds dead and subsequently there were 296.26 and 718.78 million euros in losses for the Spanish fishing and tourism sectors, respectively. It is clear that the damages were grave. It was time for scientists to come to the rescue with a solution to clean the beaches and prevent more consequences. Dr. José Luis Bourdelande from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona did just that, his method of cleaning oil from rocks with a solution of hydrogen peroxide metallic salts and sunlight was not only efficient, but also cheap.

This was a revolutionary discovery as the method that was being used at the time, which was manually cleaning the rocks was highly time-consuming and inefficient. He had a particularly vested interest in the project as one of the beaches in his hometown of Llanes was gravely affected by this tragedy. So, why did the Spanish government ignore his solution and refuse to fund it? Whether it was politics or other economic reasons, we may never know, but Bourdelande still feels the frustration and impotence as ardently as he did in 2003. It is however painstakingly clear that the solution was presented to them and that they actively decided to ignore it. 

It is evident that spills of this nature can be devastating to the ecology and the economy and since the Prestige oil spill there have been efforts to prevent this by several means. For example, there has been a lot of technological innovation to the tanker ships in charge of carrying this oil and there have also been several advancements in spill cleanup technology like the one proposed by Dr. Bourdelande. The European Union even introduced a Council Directive concerning dangerous or hazardous substances polluting European waters three decades ago (2006/11/EC) as well as enforcing legislation preventing vessels as old as the Prestige, which was 23 years old at the time, from transporting oil in European waters. These efforts are already a step in the right direction but the real solution lies in prevention of all accidental spills, raising awareness about the dangers of these spills and demanding a proper response from our governments. We must learn from our mistakes. 

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Author: Helena Bremermann