Got a sticky problem? Don’t worry, you can always dump it on Africa Leaking oil tanker towed south after Europe says ‘not in my back yard’
Giles Tremlett in Caion, north-west Spain Tuesday November 19, 2002 The Guardian
Europe’s biggest environmental headache for a decade appeared to have been solved yesterday by the simple, if cynical, ruse of towing the stricken oil tanker Prestige from Spain to Africa.
As European countries demanded that the ageing tanker, described by environmentalists as “a chemical time-bomb”, be taken away from their coasts before it sank and released its deadly cargo of 70,000 tonnes of fuel oil, the Dutch salvage company in charge of the rescue operation began towing it south.
A spokesman for the company, Smit International, said it would keep the Prestige, which began leaking another 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil overnight, heading south until it found somewhere it could attempt a transfer of the cargo on to another tanker.
“We are looking for shelter wherever we can find it,” said the spokesman, Lars Walder. But he admitted that that probably would not happen until the tanker got to Africa, “maybe near Cape Verde”.
Environmentalists complained that Europe’s not-in-my-backyard stance would see a Greek-owned vessel, insured in London, towed out of Spanish waters to Africa to either sink or unload its cargo.
“That would be shameful and completely unacceptable. It is a way of getting rid of our environmental problems by exporting them to the developing world,” said Miguel Angel Valladares of the Spanish branch of the WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature.
There were still doubts last night that the vessel, then some 100 miles off the Portuguese coast, would survive a trip to Cape Verde. Mr Smit admitted that the Prestige would almost certainly have sunk within days if it had stayed in the rough seas off Spain’s Cape Finisterre, where it ran into trouble on Wednesday.
Environmentalists demanded that, if the fuel could not be transferred to another vessel, the Prestige should be bombed and burned before it was allowed to sink. “If it sinks to the bottom it could still be the worst environmental disaster we have ever seen,” warned Mr Valladares.
“The best thing is obviously to take the fuel off but, if not, it is better to burn it and pollute the atmosphere than to sink it and pollute the ocean floor. That would ruin the seabed and keep sending pollution in towards the coast for years.”
He criticised those in charge of the rescue operation for not transferring fuel from the vessel late last week. Mr Smit laid the blame for that on the Spanish government.
The vessel was last night close to an especially rich part of the Atlantic seabed known as the Galician banks, which environmentalists warned would be devastated if the tanker was allowed to sink and spill its load there. The Prestige has already left a deadly trail of pollution behind it in north-west Spain, after thick black oil washed up on beaches along a 100-mile stretch of coast at the weekend.
There were long faces yesterday in the Cafe Zarra, in the port of Caion, 12 miles west of Coruna, where the fleet of 30 boats has been banned from fishing or harvesting shellfish until further notice.
“We are done for. I don’t understand why the tanker was out there in such bad seas,” said Jesus Freire, who should have been out yesterday harvesting valuable goose barnacles from the foot of nearby cliffs.
But those cliffs have now been painted black with oil. “Who would buy anything from here now anyway,” he said, brandishing spiky goose barnacles turned grey by the pollution. “Even I am too scared to eat them.”
Antonio Verdia, 53, who should have been out fishing for octopus in his red and white wooden boat Nieves, said he had no idea when he would be allowed out again. “We just hope someone pays us compensation,” he said.
Manuel Pose, mayor of the neighbouring town of Arteixo, said the goose barnacles had only just recovered from an oil spill 21 years ago when the Urquiola tanker went down off this rugged coastline known as “the Coast of Death”.
As he spoke, 50 sailors from the Spanish navy base at nearby Ferrol armed with shovels, bin bags and face masks began the slow, painstaking task of scraping oil off Caion’s blackened beaches.
Further west along the coast Pedro Casas, a warden employed by the regional government of Galicia, was scouring the beach at the Baldaio nature reserve for dead birds and for those so covered with oil that they could no longer move.
“This one will have its stomach pumped clean, then we will wash its feathers and feed it,” he said as he placed a squawking, oil-covered razorbill, wrapped in a white cloth, inside a cardboard box.
Attempts to keep the oil out of the lagoon at Baldaio failed over the weekend, damaging one of the region’s most important nature reserves. Several dozen dead or oil-poisoned birds, including cormorants, gannets, gulls and guillemots, had been found along the beach. Teams of fishermen were yesterday removing oil from the sand around the lagoon, where they cultivate clams.
Mr Casas said the reserve’s ecosystem still had not recovered from the spill caused by the Aegean Sea tanker when it grounded off Coruna 11 years ago. “Oil is like plastic. It does not degrade. The birds here might be affected for years,” he said.
Francisco Vazquez, Socialist mayor of Coruna, also called for the Prestige to be burned and complained that the sea around the north-west corner of Spain had become “like a motorway for ships”.
Environmentalists said that nearly one sixth of the world’s fleet of 6,000 tankers was as aged, decrepit and dangerous as the Prestige.
Spain’s prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, said he did not believe British claims that the Prestige had not been planning to stop in Gibraltar. “It is very clear that its destination was Gibraltar,” he said.
As the Prestige headed towards Africa, experts recalled that, although spills in Europe and the US got most publicity, many of the worst tanker disasters had occurred off Africa. Those included the world’s second biggest spill, when the Summer tanker went down with 260,000 tonnes of oil off Angola in 1991, and the 190,000 tonnes spilt by the Castillo de Belver off South Africa in 1983.