Having finished his workday on November 13, 2002, Javier Sarr, a sailor of 20 years in the Spanish region of Galicia, is at a bar with his colleagues.
They had heard the news on the radio while hunting that day. One of the boats in the Finisterre Passage was experiencing problems. Nothing uncommon.
No one could have predicted that this seemingly manageable event would become the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.
Never before has 63,000 tons of heavy fuel oil washed up the coasts of the northern Iberian country – it ended up creating a 2,000 km polluted zone stretching from Portugal to Spain and France.
Twenty years ago, on the evening of November 13th, all was quiet.
The situation soon turns chaotic
It was in the early hours of the morning—just two hours into his shift—when Javier was awakened by a frightened colleague. The smell of diesel was overwhelming.
Thinking it had leaked from their ship, the sailors went down to the engine room, but as they walked down the corridors, they realized the smell was no longer as strong.
It wasn’t coming from their ship, it was coming from the sea.
“We didn’t know anything about what was happening. I couldn’t imagine the tanker was 27 (nautical) miles away a few hours ago and was in trouble, but we started to connect the dots,” Sarr told Euronews.
“We heard the tugboats talking on a radio channel, and then we realized that the ship was practically off the coast of Moxia.”
That carrier was the Prestige. The 243-meter-long ship was out of control with 27 crew members on board. A severe storm caused a leak that caused the ship to heat up 45 degrees and the oil she was carrying began to leak into the sea.
Soon after, Sarr received a call from Galicia’s regional fisheries minister—the local authorities were concerned.
what is the situation “.
Saar told him, “Chaos. The boat (sinks) off the coast and we’re about to see what happens.”
A dark future
The Prestige was a 26-year-old, single-hull vessel that had just received her navigation certificate from the US-classified ABS after overhaul in China.
Experts who studied the case said the ship had suffered a hull failure in the same section where it was repaired.
After saving most of the crew on board – the captain and two other sailors remained inside the ship to help tow her – the authorities decided to move her away from the coast and, with the help of tugs, put her out to sea.
“It was a disaster that could have been reduced to a few kilometers from the coast, but moving the ship polluted nearly 2,000 kilometers, making it a continent-wide disaster,” said Manuel Santos, spokesman for Greenpeace.
The decision was taken by the Minister of Public Works at the time, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, who ordered the ship to be towed away from the coast towards the north, which alarmed the French and British authorities.
The crisis government has been holding meetings since November 14, and several options have been put on the table.
The Cabinet even considered the possibility of bombing the tanker with fighter jets before it sank, according to Defense Minister Federico Trillo.
Santos, speaking of errors in the management of the crisis, noted that “No one among the people working at sea in Galicia was in favor of moving the ship away. This was maximizing the disaster.”
He adds, “There was a lot of misinformation from politicians, even denying the existence of an oil slick when people saw it entering their coasts and beaches.” “It was a terrifying cocktail.”
Until the Prestige finally sank six days later, on 19 November.
“The future was great, that’s the best way to put it. I was building a boat, and after that we thought about stopping production,” Sarr said.
Anger and helplessness
The ocean current favored the path of the heavy fuel oil toward the land. At that time, the oil spill covered 170 kilometers of coastline, and in the following days it continued to spread.
Despite the bad weather, thousands of volunteers and military personnel came to Galicia to help clean up the beaches.
“The image I have in my mind from those days is of volunteers working with their hearts, cleaning the beaches. And the devastation I felt when, after a few days, you had a clean beach, and the next day you arrived and the beach was just as it was in the beginning,” Sarr said.
“You would come back again with such anger and helplessness,” he said.
The cleanup process was messy, and the volunteers didn’t even have protective gear.
“There was absolutely nothing there. The first time the (Spanish) king came to Moxia, we told him we had nothing at all, not even protective stuff. The next day, a lorry showed up in the port area, and they took it to Seville,” Sarr said. Protection: Gloves, covers and masks.
From sunrise to sunset, they collected more than 100,000 tons of tarry black mud. The days were hard and intense.
He added, “When there was a sunny day, it (oil) became more volatile, and you would see volunteers getting dizzy and fainting. It was shocking.”
The spill affected nearly 3,000 kilometers of polluted coastline, but the trial, which took place ten years after the spill, has only put some of the guilty parties in the dock, according to Santos.
“The trial was the largest environmental trial in the history of Spain. It was a huge trial. Its investigation lasted nine years. Eleven years later, no one has been found guilty. In fact, many people have not been represented,” Santos, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said.
“There was a ruling in 2013 by the Higher Regional Court (in Galicia), but it didn’t even convict anyone of environmental crimes.”
“I have only condemned the ship’s captain for his dangerous disobedience to the Spanish authorities in the rescue operations,” said Margarita Trejo, an expert in environmental law.
“It took 16 years, until 2008, to get a two-year prison sentence for an environmental and environmental crime against the ship’s captain.”
“It also took 16 years to obtain reparations and compensation for both the Spanish state and the ruling junta in Galicia, as well as for others affected,” Trejo said.
The total amount the Spanish state is seeking in compensation is $1 billion (about 1 billion euros).
A British court has not yet determined whether the British insurance company Prestige – which has been claimed by proxy for the environmental tragedy – should compensate the victims.