Galicia's Oil Spills
Published: May 2009
By Valerie Waterhouse
Despite official and grassroots efforts to clean up a massive oil spill in Galicia, the problems on Spain's northern coast are still surfacing. <b>Valerie Waterhouse</b> reports
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 Ral 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."
It's no coincidence that Coba is a member of Nunca Máis ("Never Again"), a political and social movement formed last November after the spill. A demonstration in Madrid in February attracted more than 300,000 (though some estimates put the crowd at 1 million), and houses in Galicia's towns and cities are still strewn with symbolic sea-blue and black banners. "Our original aims included resignations from the politicians involved, responsible cleanup operations, and a change in maritime policy," says the novelist de Toro, who is also a spokesperson for Nunca Máis. In March, the European Union announced it would ban single-hulled vessels weighing more than 5,000 tons from carrying heavy fuel into European waters; that law is scheduled to take effect later this year, pending final EU approval. But de Toro believes this is only the beginning: "We need stronger marine-law enforcement and better monitoring of shipping in the area."
While the Spanish government may have been instrumental in getting the EU law moving, officials have failed to quell regional anger. Prime Minister Aznar's $13.4 billion "Galician Plan" hasn't helped, either. The wide-ranging proposal does outline compensation for lost earnings and for some of the cost of restoring the ocean, coasts, and protected natural areas, as well as tax cuts for those harmed by the spill; it also promises new highways, a high-speed rail network, a $26 million luxury hotel on the Costa da Morte, and better Internet connections for area schools. Not surprisingly, the plan has been met with much skepticism; a survey in La Voz de Galicia, the local paper, reported that only 15 percent of Galicians approve of the program. Aznar's support of military action in Iraq further eroded his popularity in the region; it is all too easy for area residents to see dependence on oil as the cause of their problems as well as problems abroad.
On the streets of la coruña, the effects of the Prestige disaster are not immediately apparent. By day, surfers in wet suits still skim the chilly Atlantic waves, avoiding tar-streaked rocks. Late at night, narrow alleys leading to María Pita Plaza, in the center of town, are crowded with people visiting the neighborhood's many seafood restaurants.
The scene is bleaker at the Spanish Ornithological Society's temporary rescue center six miles north of La Coruña. Here, a sharp, sweet stench, much like sugared vinegar, fills the hut where unpaid volunteers in white Tyvek overalls identify dozens of dead birds laid out on sheets of black plastic. In February, the birds were mostly guillemots, razorbills, and puffins; by April, the worst-hit species were migrating gannets. According to Rubén Moreno, coordinator for the La Coruña emergency office of SEO/BirdLife, rescue workers have picked up 23,291 affected birds along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, and France; the SEO thinks that these may represent only 10 to 20 percent of the total, and that the true number is probably between 100,000 and 200,000, or higher. "We're very worried about the Spanish breeding population of guillemots—there were only seven pairs before the spill," Moreno says.
Although the Xunta de Galicia, the regional autonomous Galician government, has at least provided the center's facilities, Moreno expressed doubts about help from Madrid. "The Spanish government wants to pour money into roads, trains, harbors, infrastructure. I'm worried that they will use the disaster to develop tourism in the wrong way," he says.
The village of Muxía was one of the towns along the Costa da Morte most damaged by the spill. On a stretch of shore now known as Zona Cero (Ground Zero), two soldiers wearing fatigues take snapshots of each other against the glistening black rocks in the cove. Though clean sand can be seen between the boulders on the beach, workers still have much to accomplish before the coastline and the ocean floor can be declared free of oil. Fishing grounds here have been only partially reopened; locals say that to allow any fishing in this area is absurd—and dangerous. The government has appointed divers to assist in the cleanup, but the area still has the look of a disaster zone.
Even if these restoration efforts eventually succeed, the Prestige could begin leaking again. Vice President Rajoy recently announced that a consortium of six oil companies is developing a plan to pump the remaining cargo from the tanker, an operation that could cost $25 million, one-tenth of the original estimate. But de Toro, like most Galicians, wonders whether the government will honor its promise. "We suspect officials will say it is too expensive, or too difficult, and will leave the problem down there," he says. "But the Galician people will not give up until the ship has been completely drained."