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Galicia's Oil Spills

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."


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