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Prestige Oil Spill Was Costliest Sea Disaster In History

by Tito Drago

on Prestige oil spill
(IPS) MADRID -- The sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the northwest coast of Spain last year will prove to be the most costly maritime disaster in history, according to new independent estimates.

Ten billion euros ($11.4 billion) is the price tag for correcting the environmental and economic damage caused by the Prestige oil spill since November, according to a report by the Pontevedra Economists Board (Colegio de Economistas de Pontevedra), released last week.

Eight months after the single-hulled vessel began spilling oil as it foundered, the effects of the black tide are still being felt, particularly on the shores of the autonomous Spanish community of Galicia.

The dilemma remains as to how to remove the rest of the fuel from the sunken ship, which otherwise could continue to leak and contaminate the Spanish coast for 20 years.

The disaster is proving to be the most costly in the history of maritime accidents because the tanker, which held 70,000 tons of fuel, sank in the European region that is most economically dependent on its coast and fishing resources, explains the Board.

The sum includes clean-up and environmental recovery costs, public and private investment to mitigate the impacts of the black tide on the regional economy, and the implementation of laws and safety regulations to protect the coasts from another such accident.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government says the oil spill disaster has cost 600 million euros ($686 million), though some official sources admit that the total could reach a billion euros ($1.1 billion).

Fishing and public access to beaches were authorised in recent weeks, but bathers were warned that they might find fuel residue in the sand.

In Galicia, on Spain's northwest coast, there are 711 clean beaches and 12 that have deep layers of oil waste, reported the Ministry of Environment last week.

According to estimates by the Spanish Ornithology Society (SEO), between 100,000 and 200,000 birds suffered the effects of the Prestige's oil slick, which extended from the Spanish coast north to France and south to Portugal. Since November, more than 23,000 oil-covered birds -- dead and alive -- have been collected from the contaminated coastlines of the three countries.

Bird victims continue to be found, although in fewer numbers, says the SEO.

Meanwhile, underwater species appear to be entering the recovery phase. According to a study by four ocean science centres, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) reports that no hydrographical, physical or biological anomalies have been found in the areas surrounding the sunken tanker.

"In the northern hemisphere spring, the physical and biological variables registered normal values," with no abnormalities found in anchovy and mackerel fishing operations, the most important sector of the region's fishing industry, says IEO.

In the eight months since the Prestige sank to the ocean depths, 75,000 tons of waste -- including fuel, oil-covered sand and seaweed, and dead animals -- have been collected. But the ecological impacts of the spill have been gradually abating, Pascual Fernández, secretary of water and coastline at Spain's Ministry of Environment, told Tierramerica.

The oil tanker began to founder Nov. 13, 2002, near the Galician coast, and was towed farther out to sea, where it sank Nov. 19 off Finisterre Cape, situated in the Iberian Peninsula's extreme northwest. At that time, at least 20,000 tons of oil were spilled into the Atlantic Ocean.

The broken hull of the Prestige will continue to leak a ton of fuel daily for the next 20 years, warns the Ministry of Science and Technology's Centre for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research.

If a definitive solution is not implemented, the oil remaining in the tanker could be released by the unique conditions of oxygen, pressure and temperature, creating a constant leakage and potentially more black tides, said biologist Jaime Roset in a conversation with Tierramerica, citing studies by the government's High Council of Scientific Research.

Minister Fernandez says the government is putting the final touches on a strategy for extracting the remaining fuel of the sunken vessel and that the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF has been given the contract to carry out the operation.

The company will test a mechanism of shuttle collectors in August and September that could serve to remove the fuel from the Prestige without the need of a pump.

The oil could be extracted and brought to land for disposal between April and June 2004, says Repsol-YPF executive vice-president Miguel Angel Remón.

But there are those who have their doubts. Any effort to be carried out in the middle of the stormy season is not totally reliable, environmental activist Perico Alonso, Galicia representative of the non-governmental Ecologistas en Accion, told Tierramerica.

All in all, biologist Roset believes the environmental safety situation is under control due to new, strict inspections of oil tankers in Spanish waters and to the "impressive" labour of volunteers and ecologists.

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Albion Monitor July 31, 2003 (

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