November 2002 - Spain oil spill: diary of events

A crisis unfolding

10 April 2003
An ambitious project with an apparently open-ended budget has been started to remove about 37,000 tonnes of oil from the wreck of the Prestige lying more than 3,5 kilometres below the surface. As an interim measure, until now holes that were leaking oil have been patched up by a mini submarine.

It is reported that Repsol, the company employed to carry-out the removal of the oil, has 3 options:

1.  a valve will be attached to the wreckage, and the oil which seeps out (apparently due to gravity) will be captured in bags and ferried to the surface.
2.  if this is unsuccessful, a canopy will be suspended over the wreck to capture escaping oil.
3.  As a last resort, the most technically complex method of pumping out the oil will be resorted to.

WWF is not an engineering company and therefore does not have a position on the technical feasibility of any of the options proposed. WWF's concern and competence is related to the social and environmental effects of the operation.

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28 January 2003
The situation has not changed much over the past two weeks. Beaches along both the Galician and the southwestern French coasts are repeatedly impacted by oil slicks, most of them actually consisting of thousands of small lumps of oil.

Later this week, WWF-Spain will be launching a report on the rock clean-up operations.

Common position of environmental NGOs
A coalition of environmental NGOs, including WWF-Spain, recently published a   position paper (12kb zip, in Spanish) on the Prestige disaster, in which they state facts and expose their joint conclusion and position on 14 different issues related to the oil spill.

To give a few examples,

  • They demand an unlimited liability regime for the whole chain involved in the transport of hydrocarbons, from the ship owner to the cargo owner, including the insurances companies and the certification societies.

  • On the issue of management of the fuel removed, they are firmly opposed to the incineration of the fuel and other waste because this results in the emission of toxic substances, including toxic organic compounds and heavy metals.

  • They believe that the fuel should be safely stored in an adequate place until the most appropriate management method is established.

  • They also state that, from the very beginning of the crisis, the (local) Administration failed to live up to its functions and responsibilities, and had to be replaced by fishermen, shellfish-gathering associations, environmentalist NGOs, and associations of citizens, all of which have contributed their money, time, knowledge and work.

  • They demand that the Administration fully assume responsibility for all the economic contributions made by these people.

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7 January 2003

The Death Coast in Galicia is expecting a fourth wave of contamination. Very bad weather in the past day has prevented boats from collecting fuel at sea. As a result, beaches that have already been cleaned might very well be badly hit again in the coming hours or days.WWF volunteers are still working mainly in bird rescue centres and collecting oiled birds. The latest data shows that there has been an increase in daily numbers of dead birds found on the beaches. Atlantic puffins are paying the highest toll to the black tide. There are now also fears that migratory birds returning from their wintering grounds in the Southern hemisphere will be impacted in the coming months, as it is now obvious that the oil slicks will not disappear in the short term.

Currently, only three holes in the Prestige wreckage have been sealed, and new ones have been detected. According to various sources, some 80 tons of fuel are still leaking every day from the Prestige. WWF-Spain is now working closely with local environmental groups on setting up priorities for habitat restoration and long term strategies.

Pictures can be found at

200 kilometres of beaches from the Landes area to the town of La Rochelle have been contaminated, usually in the form of thousands of small lumps of oil. Last Sunday, a 150-metre-long slick entered the Arcachon basin, a major shellfish producing area. The sale of oysters from the Arcachon basin, 80 kilometres of biologically important coastal ecosystems, was banned on Monday. Some 1,000 people work in the oyster farms that produce 15,000 tons of oysters per year.

Some 1,000 people are engaged in clean-up operations, including 300 firemen and 200 soldiers. However, mayors of the concerned towns and villages are complaining that many more people are needed. The French Government has so far made available 50 million euros to fund the clean-up, and opened a criminal inquiry to establish who is responsible for the spill.

According to different news sources, the Russian financial and industrial group Alpha has sold Crown Resources, charterer of the sunken tanker Prestige, to its senior staff. The transaction came to light only days after France confirmed it was starting legal proceedings against all parties responsible for the tragedy.

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20 December 2002
Last week, the Nautile already plugged (apparently successfully) one leak. According to experts, bunging the holes will take up to 20 dives, but even after the cracks are sealed the vessel may continue to leak oil to the order of 11 tonnes a day. The Nautile is shoving metal bells into gaping holes, covering other gaps in sheeting and for smaller cracks, using bags filled with metal balls. The operation should be finished by January 20, and will cost around 1.2 million euros (dollars) according to Emilio Lora-Tamayo, a leading member of a scientific committee set up to deal with the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Galician coasts is still being hit by oil. A massive slick just reached the Death Coast, where some beaches are covered by an oil carpet up to one meter thick. Some 10,000 people - soldiers, government staff, fishermen, volunteers - are currently working in this area.

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6 December 2002
The French submarine Nautile has detected four small streams of solidified oil emerging from the tanker's bow and floating towards the surface.

Based on the work carried out by the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute, WWF believes that the current situation, and its new development, is far more serious than the Spanish authorities are admitting.

WWF is also very concerned by the fact that another important oil slick might be floating some 15 metres below the sea surface and approaching the coastline without being detected by planes and satellites.

This concern has been raised after several high seas fishing boats caught fuel in their nets though the fishermen stated that they had not seen any oil slick on the sea surface.

The likelihood of a another oil slick moving under the surface of the sea is being taken seriously by local marine experts, who say that fuel from the Prestige has been behaving very strangely and that some of the observations made so far remain unexplained.

What is clear however, is that the Spanish government's handling of the crisis is coming under increasing criticism.

The local population is angrier than ever, especially since in some areas, fishermen are working night and day to collect toxic fuel with their hands because proper resources and equipment are lacking. Already 100 locals have complained of unusual tiredness and respiratory problems.

WWF-Spain, which has opened a small office in Galicia, emphasizes that both technical resources such as boots, gear and equipment, and technical experts are either lacking or being used in the wrong places.

Also, despite early WWF warnings, the government has failed to provide special assistance and protection to key areas, especially in Southern Galicia.

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Thursday 28 November 2002
On Tuesday, the governments of France and Spain agreed that tankers over 15 yeas old carrying dangerous cargoes will be 'expelled' from their countries' economic exclusion zones (EEZ) - ie. within a distance of 200 nautical miles or approximately 360km off their coasts - if they are not able to provide certain information on their cargoes, destinations and condition.

At the same time, Crown Resources, the company that hired the Prestige, has now hired another tanker, the Byzantio, to transfer 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel from Estonia to Singapore.

The Byzantio bears remarkable similarities to the Prestige - built in 1976, it is a single hulled tanker and there have been concerns about its safety record. The tanker is expected in French waters around 4 December, and the French government requested the Estonian authorities to run additional security checks on the Byzantio before it was allowed to leave port.

These extra checks have now been made, and the Estonian authorities have pronounced the Byzantio fit to sail. It is expected to leave port near Talin tomorrow morning.

Seven specialized boats - two French, two Dutch, one British, one German and one Belgian - are now involved in the clean-up operation.

However, these ships have now been consigned to port for 3 days in a row due to bad weather and waves of up to 4 metres. So far, the boats have managed to clean up around 2,000 tonnes of fuel from the estimated 11,000 in the slicks. On the ground, 800 people are working on the clean-up, with 2,100 tones of fuel having been collected from the 141 beaches that have been affected.

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Tuesday 26 November
Some 10,000 tonnes of fuel are still approaching the Galician coast. The slick is now some 100 kilometres away from the coast, and is moving at an increasing pace - 30 kilometres a day under the current wind conditions (yesterday it was moving at 12 kilometres a day).

The French Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot today held a press conference in La Coruña as a French submarine made its way to inspect wreckage of the Prestige. The submarine aims is to bring back potentially useful information on the status of the submerged oil tanks.

The French authorities are also worried by the direction taken by a slick off the northeastern coast of Galicia. They cannot rule out the possibility that this slick might reach France at some point. WWF-France's President Daniel Richard had been invited to accompany Ms Bachelot in her trip to Galicia.

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Monday 25 November
According to official estimations, some 10,000 tonnes of fuel could reach the Galician coast by the end of this week, if the current wind conditions persist. The various oil slicks are now moving at a pace of 12 kilometres a day.

"In the community of Mujia, people have already cleaned up the beach three times," said WWF-Spain biologist Susana Requeña. WWF is concerned that the numerous volunteers - who have been working during the weekend - do not have adequate equipment, and could therefore be putting their health at risk. The oil is very thick, and its degree of toxicity is not yet exactly known. Some preliminary results from sample analyses should be known in the coming hours.

Sunday 24 November

Two small but new slicks form above sunken tanker.

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Saturday 23 November
After having said on Thursday 21 November that the remaining 60,000 tons of oil that went down with the Prestige were likely to remain on the ocean floor, the Spanish government on Friday officially confirmed that the sunken tanker was leaking oil, and that a slick of significant size was now some 25 kilometres away from the Southern Galician coastline, close to both the Portuguese border and the National Park of the Atlantic Islands.

According to Dr Simon Cripps, Director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme, this clearly means that at least one of the ship's tanks has perforated. "Given the current weather conditions, we should know by tomorrow night whether the slick will remain compact, which would lead to a monumental catastrophe, or if it will break up in many small slicks, which would be slightly less disastrous."

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Friday 22 November
Reports suggest that 240 tonnes of fuel have now been scraped off the coastline, and 120 more have been collected at sea.

There are 11 or 12 mini-oil slicks - most around the site of the Prestige, but one approximately 3km off the Galician coast near Muros.

Currently the wind is coming from south south west - meaning it is moving the oil in a north north easterly direction.

If the wind continues to blow in this direction, it is likely that the oil slicks will hit the coast in the same areas that have already been affected.

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Thursday 21 November
Latest reports say there are now seven slicks, one is two miles from shore, two 40 miles away and four had formed 130 miles off Spain's north-west coast near the site of the sinking.

Spanish officials estimate that the nearest slick will hit the shoreline this weekend given current conditions.

The first oiled birds have started turning up in Portugal.

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Wednesday 20 November (pm)
According to the latest reports, there are four large oil slicks.

One is at the site of the wreck - 120 miles off Finistere, two at 40 miles from Finistere, and one at 60 miles from Finistere.

At the site of the wreck, the spill is 15.7 kilometres by 5 kilometres wide.

Winds are now blowing in a southeasterly direction - which means that there is a strong possibility that a slick will end up on the Las Islas Cíes in the National Park of the Atlantic Islands (map).

This park is one of the major nesting sites for marine birds.

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Wednesday 20 November (am)
Tanker situation:
The boat has sunk in an underwater channel that separates the Galician Bank from the continental shelf.

This area is a seamount - an underwater mountain - and has very high biodiversity, much of which has not yet been identified  (pdf available 400kb).

The upswelling of cold water in this zone has resulted in a high concentration of species - 11 sharks, 86 species of fish, some of which are new to science, sponges, star fish, etc. Some of the most important cold water corals in Europe are also found in this area.

Jose Luis Garcia Varas, Head of WWF Spain's Marine Programme, said that: "From the first, WWF has said that the Prestige was an ecological time bomb that looks like it could explode in a little known area of high ecological importance."

Given the current weather conditions, WWF is very concerned about the possible impacts on the National Park of the Atlantic Islands surrounding Las Islas Cíes.

The 6,000 tonnes of fuel have been spilt over 230km away from the Islands that lie at the heart of the Park (map), but the wind is blowing towards the Park. This Park is one of the major nesting sites for marine birds. A map can be viewed concerning the distance involved to key environmental sites.

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Tuesday 19 November:
Tanker situation:
According to the last reports, the tanker was still carrying between 60,000 and 70,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil - a hydrocarbon mixture that is heavier than water - when it sank.

Apparently the oil is still all contained within compartments in the holds of the ship. As far as is known, it appears that the compartments in the stern were still intact intact. In the area of the tanker, the depth of water is over 3,000 metres.

There are now increased fears of a massive ecological disaster in the area. This is compounded by the fact that the boat is situated near the Las Islas Cíes - which are a National Park.

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Monday 18 November
Tanker situation:
According to reports, the tanker is currently more than 170km away from the Galician coast, and is now in Portuguese waters. It is now being towed by a more powerful tug vessel, and reports suggest that the tanker might be being moved towards a port in Africa though there is no confirmation of this as yet. WWF-Spain remains very concerned that there is a good possibility that the tanker could sink.

More fuel leaked from the tanker on Sunday, bringing the quantity of oil spilt to approximately 4,000 tonnes. The oil is now impacting more than 200km of the Galician coast, and the Spanish government has suspended fishing activities along a 100km stretch of the coast. Estimates suggest that the spill could cause 100 million Euros worth of economic losses, affect 2,500 jobs in the fishing industry, and hence over 4,500 families in the area.

WWF activities:
This morning, WWF-Spain issued a press release emphasizing that though the situation of the Prestige might appear to be under control, there is no room for complacency. Even if no more fuel escapes from the tanker, the 4,000 tonnes that have already spilt will have a serious impact on the marine environment.

WWF-Spain now has 2 staff on the ground in Galicia, providing technical assistance and collaborating with the authorities on on-going clean up activities. A veterinarian specialized in the treatment of animals affected by oil pollution is also on standby to move to Galicia.

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Saturday 16 November:
Tanker situation:
As of this evening European time, the tanker had still not split up. However, there is still a strong possibility that this could happen over the coming days. The approximately 3,000 tonnes of fuel that have spilt from the tanker over the past few days are now threatening the Galician coast. Efforts are still being made to move the tanker away from the coast, and there are media reports that attempts will soon be made to restart the boat's engines.

WWF activities:
WWF-Spain has offered the support of its ERGOS programme to the Spanish authorities. ERGOS was specifically designed to intervene in the case of oil spills in the sea. The ERGOS team will be moving to the Galician coast tomorrow (Sunday) to observe the situation on the ground and take appropriate action.

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