Oil

In Spain in November 2002 an oil tanker called the Prestige broke up in a storm off the Galician coast.  I was unlucky or lucky enough to be covering it for a few international broadcasters.  My strongest memory is wandering along a lonely beach on Galicia’s ‘Costa de la Muerte’  (Coast of Death, and the weather was pretty deadly) and watching the seagulls hovering on the driving winds a few yards from where I was walking.   There was no smell of oil, maybe because of the strong winds and heavy rain dispersing any fumes and I was surprised and relieved at how I hadn’t really seen any obvious signs of the disaster yet.  Perhaps the authorities were right?  It was all coming under control and probably not that bad.  Then I realised with horror that something was wrong with those seagulls, they were black.   This was just a few days into the disaster and the Spanish authorities were reluctantly trying to clean-up the mess left by this dodgy, single hulled tanker.  This wasn’t an oil rig spewing oil from its source like the one in the Gulf of Mexico but there are similarities in how the Spanish authorities and BP plus some of the US authorities have handled their respective disasters.  Both initially played down the impact of the spill.  It took the Spanish authorities many days to admit they had an environmental catastrophe on their hands, and even when the did (after the oil tanker had broken up and sunk) they ended up admitting that about 14,000 tonnes had seeped from the vessel.  According to envirnmental groups and later confirmed when the remaining oil was removed from the sunken tanker some years later – 60,000 tonnes of oil ended up in the sea and a lot of that reached Spain’s coastline.  Some estimates say the Prestige, as it broke up and sank, was leaking at an estimated rate of more than 100 tons of oil per day.  The sheer rate at which this oil rig is spewing oil makes the Spanish disaster, look relatively minor.  Of course the problem with the Spanish one was that the Prestige tanker continued to leak for months, if not years, after it sank and largely because of that, for six months fishing off the coast of Galicia was prohibited.  At the moment the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is spewing oil about seven times faster than the Prestige ever was, at the rate of more than 700 tons per day.   So this is already a disaster for wildlife and fishermen.   But the US and Spanish authorities have differed, mainly because of the resources available, in their responses to their respective spill.  Led by the US Coast Guard and other local agencies about two hundred vessels are involved in the attempt to control and clean-up the spill in the Gulf.  Spain, from memory, only had a few boats at their disposal and the weather was awful.  So comparisons to the emmergency relief offered after Hurricane Katrina are probably not warranted.  If they are, Spain’s response to the Prestige was positively awful.

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