Oil Spills Show Lessons Still Not Learned

By Vendrell, Ignasi B. | Public Relations Journal, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Oil Spills Show Lessons Still Not Learned


Vendrell, Ignasi B., Public Relations Journal


On Dec. 3, 1992, the Greek tanker Aegean Sea crashed onto rocks at the harbor entrance of La Coruna, a fishing town in Galicia, on the northwestern coast of Spain. Hercules Tower, the only bimillennial Roman beacon in the world, was engulfed in thick black smoke from burning crude oil.

Negligence figured heavily in the Aegean Sea accident. During a severe thunderstorm, the captain of the tanker attempted to sail into the harbor without the assistance of a pilot boat. This blatant disregard for international maritime regulations was the primary cause of the accident.

Environmentalists claimed that this oil spill was worse than the one caused by the Exxon Valdez. Five years after the Valdez oil spill off the shores of Alaska, mismanagement of communications issues compounded problems caused by the Aegean Sea oil spill, and caused outrage among affected constituencies.

Twist of fate repeats history

Over the past 17 years, seven major oil spills have polluted Spain's waters. Emergency responses have been limited and slow. In a curious twist of fate, 15 days prior to the Aegean Sea disaster, Spain's northwestern fishermen received compensation for damages resulting from the Urquiola oil spill which occurred 16 years previously.

Regional and local Spanish authorities coordinated and implemented operational efforts, taking control early in the catastrophe by quickly establishing a center of crisis operations in La Coruna. Bad weather prevented total control of the leaking tanker but civil and Army forces were alerted and ready to help.

Following their spectacular helicopter rescue, the Aegean Sea's captain and crew refused to cooperate with the crisis team, maintaining absolute silence. They refused to provide maps, layouts or technical descriptions of the ship. Because of their uncooperative attitude, they were arrested the same day by the Spanish authorities until they divulged this important information to the regional Galician court.

Eventually, the oil spill was intentionally set aflame as the sea and weather were making other containment efforts impossible. The intense heat and thick pall of black smoke would inevitably affect the health of local residents and damage the environment and personal and community property, as well.

A crisis team managed by the National Director of the Merchant Marine was created. The team was made up of political and civil authorities as well as officials from the Galician autonomous regional government and La Coruna. They joined the center of crisis operations that was set up five hours earlier to respond to the disaster.

During the first 24 hours, the team attempted to disclose and explain the facts. But their limited understanding of specific community concerns handicapped them from the start. The warning message released by the center and announced over municipal police megaphones, that: "the smoke is not harmful to citizens' health but evacuation of the harbor neighborhood should be carried out as a preventative measure" was clear but not convincing. Concerned citizens began asking such questions as "Can you tell us how safe we are?" and "How harmful is the smoke compared to the 1976 Urquiola oil spill?"

Most people were aware of the potential for danger and were inclined to follow the safety advice of the crisis team. They followed the team's warning by taking refuge in the municipal athletic field and in hotels that were recommended as the safest places to stay. However, local citizens also remembered the economic effects of the 1976 shipwreck. They did not completely trust the statements on this subject the team issued. Rather than appointing one spokesperson, the crisis team allowed several people to answer the community's questions, often with contradictory responses and abstruse technical jargon. This increased confusion in the community.

The uncertainty, lack of information and unanswered community questions regarding health issues, property implications, and environmental and economic consequences angered and frustrated the citizens.

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