How long before another Prestige?

Article published on June 5, 2003
community published
Article published on June 5, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Gaps in the implementation of a European environmental policy, which holds a vast number of standards.

On the 13 November 2002, during dangerous weather conditions off the coast of Galicia, in the north west of Spain, the 'Prestige' Oil tanker, had a serious accident whilst carrying more than 77 000 tons of fuel. Six days later, on the morning of the 19 November, the boat tore in half and sunk to a depth of more than 3 500 metres. After the accident, more than 5 000 tons of fuel leaked from the vessel. The oil slick stretched across more than 1175km of the Galicia coastline, a region which is largely dependent on fishing. The villagers, known to have a somewhat particular sense of humour in these parts, started talking of 'Galicia: Ground Zero'.

Galicia, a vulnerable region

This accident was in fact the biggest environmental disaster in Galicia's history, a place which has suffered seven of the eleven worst maritime disasters that have occurred in Europe alone. Over the last thirty years the Galician coast has received around 300 000 tons of oil, an amount which is similar to the total amount spilled everywhere else in Europe. Aside from five oil tankers, this autonomous community has also suffered the Erkowit accident, which was carrying pesticides, and also the Cason incident which burst into flames whilst transporting drums of toxic substances.

Galicia is a region noted for the beauty of its rias (fluvial valleys flooded by the sea, which are typical of the area) and for its maritime biodiversity. It will take the Galician coast between four and five years to recover. But it will take ages before the natural biodiversity of the area is completely restored. The natural Parkland area of the Atlantic islets (Cies, Slavor and Ons) has been vastly affected. Everyone has seen the images of the sea birds covered in oil, the black starfish, the black waves breaking on black rocks, black cliffs, black sand....

It is difficult to deny the magnitude of such an environmental, economic and social disaster.

And yet the Prestige accident is not the first of its kind. In 1967 the Torrey Canyon sank off the Isles of Scilly, in Great Britain, releasing nearly 120 000 of crude oil into the sea. The rose granite coast was soiled with 30 000 tons of oil. And then there followed a whole list of oil tankers will tons of oil spilled (Amoco Cadiz 223 000 tons of fuel; Urquiola 100 000 tons of fuel, Jakob Maersk, 88 000 tons; Aegean Sea 72 000 tons; Haven, 144 000 tons of fuel, etc...) up until the Erika, on the french coast in 1999, bearly three years before the Prestige accident.

A European Legislation slow on the move

The first thing that we all think of is 'if only we had learned something from the previous accidents, then this would never have happened.' And yet the Erika accident was the reason behind two packages of European reform policies. The first was concerning port control, the reinforcement of tanker inspection procedures, and the acceleration of the timetable for the elimination of single hull tankers. The second planned for long term measures, such as the creation of a compensatory fund for the victims of oil slicks, and also for a European Maritime Security Agency.

Yet these measures have not yet come into effect. and they remain therefore irrelevant, for the Member States had decided to bring them into effect next June. The question is not whether we need to adopt Draconian measures in relation to the environment, nor whether we need to impose hundreds of regulations. The question is how to have effective regulations.

The hesitations and squabbles between Spain and Portugal left the Prestige in the Galician waters for far too long, polluting the Atlantic ocean, even before the boat had broken in two and had started to sink on the morning of the 19 November. Thus, the Prestige shipwreck highlighted the lack of means and standards to provide for the coordination which would allow for speedy and efficient responces in these types of situations. This is a serious situation, since the prestige catastrophe could have been partially avoided, and in the least it may not have been so serious. The surplus of efficiency brought about by the initiatives and measures adopted by the Community in order to protect the environment is futile if they are not strictly and effectively followed and applied by all of the Member States.

European environmental legislation has certainly evolved, even if in a somewhat haphazard manner, in response to international negotiations and treaties, as well as to pressure from public opinion polls and certain Member States. We should note that each of the advancements were triggered by very serious accidents. We only need remind ourselves of the toxic waste pollution in the Rhine in 1986, the Chernobyl accident of 1986 or the 37 000 tons of fuel spilled during the Erika accident of 1999.

React now

The Prestige accident, classed as 14th on the worldwide blacklist of maritime oil tanker accidents, should be a turning point in the history of maritime security and the protection of the envirnment. This catastrophe has been one of the rare events which initiated an instant reaction. The necessity of one action, or rather, a reaction, to protect the European coastline from this kind of accident was confirmed and recognized by the European Commission in its communication with the European Parliament and Council on the improvement of maritime security measures.

As long as we rely on oil coming from far away lands, a large part of it will be transported by varied means. It is expected that in the next fifty years more than 150 000 000 tons of oil will cross the seas and that 70% of this oil will pass by the Galician coast. According to a long-term estimate, which takes into account the above mentioned statistics, the Galician coast will suffer at least another 10 catastrophes in the course of the next fifty years. The realisation of this statistic will not only depend on the weather conditions.