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Galicia's Oil Spills

In the fishing village of Camelle, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, is a 478-square-yard sculpture garden called the Museo del Alemán. Filled with twisted driftwood, sea-rusted metal, and stones worn down by the pounding surf, the garden was the work of Manfred Gnädinger, a German-born artist known to locals as just "Man." It's a slightly surreal place. Man spent some 30 years building his labor of love, but he never intended his creation to look like this: thick, tarlike oil coats many of his sculptures—the result of a spill from the tanker Prestige, which leaked an estimated 44,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic when it sank last November. Man died six weeks after the oil washed into his garden, at the age of 66.

The garden has become a symbol for Galicia's larger problems. Though local authorities have allocated $300,000 to restore Man's masterpiece, and the Spanish government has pledged more than $13 billion to rebuild and develop the region, many Galicians think that in both cases the money has come too late. How will the cleansing of the sea and coastline be completed, they ask, without further environmental damage?Can the Prestige, which still lies at the bottom of the Atlantic, be drained safely?And how can the people who rely on tourism and fishing be sure that their waters—and their livelihoods—will be safe?

On November 13, 2002, the Prestige called in a distress signal less than 30 miles off the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), the 99-mile Galician shoreline that gets its name from a centuries-long history of shipwrecks. The single-hulled tanker, which was owned by a Liberia-registered company, Mare International, and was flying a Bahamas flag of convenience, had struck an unidentified object, causing more than half of its 77,000-ton cargo to flood the Atlantic. But instead of having the ship towed into a port, where the remaining oil could have been drained safely, the Spanish government opted to send it out to sea. "The Mayday was received close to shore during a strong northwest wind—we knew it would be difficult to clean up the rocky coast," says David Sánchez, spokesperson for Spain's vice president, Mariano Rajoy. "I wouldn't have liked to be in the shoes of those who had to decide that day."

Suso de Toro, a Galician novelist and author of a book on the Prestige incident, believes that the government's real mission was simply to remove the problem from Spanish waters. "When the Prestige went down, the politicians in Madrid didn't worry. For them, the problem was far away," he asserts. "They governed by phone, then wanted to send the ship into Portuguese waters. [Prime Minister José María] Aznar didn't show up in Galicia until one month after the disaster occurred."

Wherever the truth lies, one fact is clear: on November 19, the tanker sank in high waves 130 miles offshore. The Prestige now lies at a depth of 11,500 feet. In February, a French submarine sealed the tanker's 14 identified leaks with metal plates, but the vessel still holds an estimated 37,000 tons of oil. Environmentalists call it a time bomb waiting to explode.

By late November, slicks of crude began to appear along Galicia's 746-mile coastline, covering many beaches and cliffs in the sticky tar—and nothing was done about it. "The Spanish government had no idea how to face an oil spill, even though it was the seventh off the Galician coast in the last thirty years," says Raœl García, the fisheries coordinator for World Wide Fund for Nature in Adena, Spain, who has been assisting the area's cleanup effort. The army and 14 private companies were ultimately put in charge of the cleanup, but for the first three weeks, environmentalists say, the region was left without any equipment or government support. Filling the gap, thousands of Spanish and other European volunteers came to the area to help. Many fishermen went out in their own vessels to aid in the cleanup; several scooped up oil with their bare hands.

After 4 1/2 months, the government claimed that 518 of Galicia's 702 beaches were "clean," two still showed the "remains" of oil, and 182 had "affected rocks." There is much disagreement, however, about the definition of clean. The long, finger-shaped inlets of the southern Rías Bajas area are once again open to fishing, as is most of the coast. But despite excellent harvests of razor clams and other shellfish, following a natural recovery of stocks during the recent ban on seafood gathering and fishing, environmentalists and fishermen say that the sea is still peppered with blobs of fuel—known to locals as galletas, after the chocolate-covered cookies. On the northernmost shore of Rías Altas, galletas continue to wash up with many tides; cliffs and rocky shorelines along the northwestern Costa da Morte—the worst-hit area of all—remain black, as does the ocean floor.

Cleanup companies and the Spanish armed forces have been using pressurized spray machines at different temperatures to scour the rocks, but that poses another problem. "Hot-water sprays raise the temperature of the ocean," García says. "That could give rise to environmental imbalances. We prefer air-temperature, low-pressure sprays."

Not surprisingly, Galicia's tourist industry may be another casualty of the Prestige disaster. Last year, 4.4 million tourists spent almost $3 billion here, and although the government is optimistic, no one can say for certain how many visitors will return.

Suso Coba, who owns O Dezaseis, a restaurant in the inland city of Santiago de Compostela, isn't sure that tourists will make their way back. "My restaurant is frequented mostly by Galicians, rather than tourists," he says. "Everything here depends on tourism. If the locals aren't making money because there are no tourists, then we won't have any hometown customers either." Of course, for every bleak viewpoint, there's an opposing, more positive outlook. "The Spanish come in the summer," says Juan Antonio Tarrago Vastapane, who manages the Meliá María Pita hotel in La Coruña, a large port town just north of the Costa da Morte. "By then, the Prestige effect will be one hundred percent over. I expect full occupancy."

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