Spain's Dark Tide Grows ; A Sunken Tanker Is Leaking 125 Tons of Oil a Day off the Spanish Coast, on Track to Be the Second-Worst Spill in History

By Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

Spain's Dark Tide Grows ; A Sunken Tanker Is Leaking 125 Tons of Oil a Day off the Spanish Coast, on Track to Be the Second-Worst Spill in History


Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It undulates in dark, ominous smears on the face of the ocean. It glistens in thick, evil-smelling puddles the length of sandy beaches. It hangs in viscous, dripping tongues from shoreline rocks.

Fuel oil from the sunken tanker Prestige has blackened 400 miles of Spain's Atlantic seaboard and paralyzed some of the richest fisheries in Europe. And more is on its way.

With massive slicks still at large, the wreck of the Prestige leaking oil from 14 different holes, and the winds changing capriciously, "the more time passes, the more pessimistic I am," says Ricardo Beiras, professor of marine pollution at Vigo University, near some of the hardest-hit areas. "Given the length of the coastline affected and its commercial importance, this is going to be one of the worst oil spills in history."

More than 7,000 military personnel, state workers, and volunteers are scrubbing oil from the 200 beaches affected by the spill. Experts say it could take three years to empty the tanker, which is leaking at the rate of 125 tons a day, according to Mario Rajoy, Spain's deputy prime minister in charge of the government cleanup.

On Wednesday, winds from the west threatened to bring new oilslicks ashore, as recovery ships reported difficulty in pumping widely dispersed concentrations of oil that is thoroughly mixed with water after nearly a month in the open ocean.

"We think that the best way of proceeding, especially in areas close to the coast, is to use small boats," said Mr. Rajoy.

Fishermen in Spain's northwestern region of Galicia, welcomed the authorities' belated acknowledgement that they had been doing almost all the work themselves until this week, when the government sent in troops to help clean up.

"The politicians have not helped at all; it's out of their hands," says Jose Manuel Naveiro, a mussel fisherman in the port of O Grove who has thrown his boat into a desperate effort to keep the oil out of the inlets where thousands of families depend on collecting abundantshellfish for their living.

Strung out on the dock beside Mr. Naveiro was a makeshift barrier, ready for use to keep oilslicks at bay. Fishermen's wives, he said, had stuffed eiderdown filling into long tubes of sacking, then attached them to potato bags filled with polystyrene to keep them afloat.

Such primitive methods are typical of the struggle that the fishermen have been waging. From their tiny vessels they have been using garden rakes, fishing utensils resembling huge slotted spoons, and even their hands to scoop oil out of the water.

"We are winning the battle so far, but we haven't won the war" to keep the precious inlets clean, Naveiro says.

The enemy in that war has broken up into more than a dozen large slicks - some several miles wide - and many smaller ones dispersed over an enormous area off the coast of Spain, Portugal, and France. At the same time, the 60,000 tons of oil left in the tanks of the Prestige lies in two parts more than two miles below the surface, according to Rajoy, who said the government is studying ways of stanching that flow. If the full cargo of 20.6 million gallons of oil leaks, the accident will be the second-largest tanker spill in history. The spill will dwarf the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster while falling short of the 78.5 million gallons lost by the Castillo de Bellver off South Africa in 1983.

A long-shot plan to pump the oil

The Dutch firm that initially tried to salvage the stricken tanker is reportedly readying a plan to pump oil from the wreck, but such an undertaking would be unprecedented at such a depth, and few experts believe it is feasible. …

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