Magazine article New Internationalist

How to Be Reconciled with an Oil-Spill: A Tanker Goes Aground; Oil Devastates the Coast; Photographers Swarm for a Few Days. and Then? Horatio Morpurgo Writes from the Devastated Coastline of Galicia, Scene of the Latest Ina Long Line of Such Disasters, and Meditates on Our Forgetful Complicity [Prestige]

Magazine article New Internationalist

How to Be Reconciled with an Oil-Spill: A Tanker Goes Aground; Oil Devastates the Coast; Photographers Swarm for a Few Days. and Then? Horatio Morpurgo Writes from the Devastated Coastline of Galicia, Scene of the Latest Ina Long Line of Such Disasters, and Meditates on Our Forgetful Complicity [Prestige]

Article excerpt

A tanker goes aground: oil devastates the coast; photographers swarm for a few days. And then? Horatio Morpurgo writes from the devastated coastline of Galicia, scene of the latest in a long line of such disasters, and meditates on our forgetful complicity.

The Bay of Biscay, between northern Spain and western France is a small, roughly square-edged sea, open to the Atlantic to the west. To English travellers it is best known for the infamous `Biscay Belly' which often afflicts them on the long ferry ride to northern Spain - still the cheapest way of getting there. Deep ocean currents, meeting the steep continental shelf which lies beneath the bay, cause turbulence. And apart from turning English tourists a funny colour, these currents serve other, more serious purposes.

Having raked their way eastwards across the floor of the North Atlantic, the currents are rich in soluble minerals picked up en route. These minerals also rise abruptly to the surface and the result is a sea rich in plankton and other microfauna, teeming with everything that feeds on them in turn, from sprats and squid to tuna and dolphins. It is visited by blue and sperm whales.

This is by way of offering some picture of what the Prestige sank into on 19 November last, with 60,000 tonnes of oil on board. The single-hull vessel sank in three kilometres of water some 260 kilometres west of Finsterra on its way from Estonia to Singapore. The same currents which drive this ecosystem were now steadily loaded with heavy fuel-oil of a kind generally used in the power stations of the developing world - containing high levels of benzene, sulphur and toluene. Vomiting and faintness were reported among those who tried to work without masks when cleaning up the beaches.

Initial reaction to the accident was grotesque in ways both expected and unexpected. Other shipping in the area, for example, took advantage of the chaos to wash out their own fuel tanks with sea water. Experts reported that several beaches were affected by oil that could not have come from the Prestige.

Shoals of journalists were of course quickly on the scene, cameras or microphones at the ready, hunting down oiled gannets or unemployed fisherpeople, or grumbling about the scarcity of press conferences. Local columnists thundered against the failures of central government in Madrid.

Madrid's response was certainly puzzling. They began by blaming the British Government - the ship had been due to call in at Gibraltar on its way east. This did not, however, play nearly as well with the domestic audience as had been hoped. Swiftly there was a change of tack: Madrid denied that serious pollution was imminent, even as 450 kilometres of coastline went black. Next up: no further fuel would escape from the wreck because the sea temperature at that depth would solidify it. Wrong again. It was a pitiful performance.

For three weeks it was left to environmentalist organizations to co-ordinate the clean-up while Madrid went on issuing its bizarre press releases. Both Greenpeace and the salvage company brought in to advise urged that either the vessel's cargo be transferred to another ship at sea or that it be towed into a port, sealed off with floating barriers and then have its cargo pumped out there.

Instead it was ordered to make for open sea as quickly as possible, in Force 6-7 gales, with a damaged hull. It broke up and sank in six days. To be fair, Madrid was merely adapting to its own use a belief already popular with several European governments: if the bottom of the North Atlantic is good enough for nuclear waste and obsolete munitions, it is good enough for oil-tankers.

It has been environmentalists, too, who have addressed the implications which Madrid doesn't dare to address. A spill of roughly similar proportions to this one occurred exactly 10 years ago off the same coastline. That ship, the Aegean Sea - owned by the very same Greek family - caught fire and exploded, blackening the sky above Corunna. …

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