New Oil Slick Set to Hit Spanish Coast

December 2, 2002

An estimated 9000 tons (2.4 million gallons) of heavy fuel oil, discharged from the sunken tanker “Prestige,” was poised to wash up on the beaches of Spain’s Northwestern Coast beginning today.

Some of the oil has already landed on Galician beaches and the rest is floating approximately a mile off shore. Despite government and individual efforts to block its onslaught and numerous vessels engaged in skimming quantities of the oil from the surface, the major portion of this new spill is expected to arrive soon.

Around 6000 tons of oil first washed ashore two weeks ago, after the “Prestige, a singled-hulled, 26 year old tanker, broke in two and went down in heavy seas. Local fishermen and the shellfish industry, upon which many people in the region depend for their livelihood has been devastated, with fishing and shellfish gathering currently prohibited along wide stretches of the coast due to the ongoing pollution.

Local residents have assailed the Spanish government’s handling of the Prestige affair, characterizing its efforts as inept and calling for the resignation of the officials involved. The government denied permission for the “Prestige” to approach a Spanish port to unload its remaining cargo before it broke up, around 100 miles off the coast.

At a depth of over two miles it was hoped that cold waters and pressure would prevent a further discharge of the approximately 50,000 tons of fuel oil remaining in its tanks, but this may not be the case. A French mini-submarine, equipped to explore at great depths, was due to arrive on the scene late Sunday, to begin a survey of the wreckage in an effort to ascertain if it is still leaking oil.

The Spanish government has announced its intention to file lawsuits against the tanker’s Greek owners and operators and the Swiss-based Russian Company that chartered it, as well as their insurers.

Apart from initial statements that they may have some liability, neither Lloyd’s nor other maritime insurers have made any further announcements, but the spill could be very costly, especially if it continues unchecked for a long period of time. Most analysts expect to see greatly increased premiums for oil tankers, particularly older single-hulled vessels that are viewed as high risk. Transporting heavy low-grade fuel oil by sea may in fact become prohibitively expensive.

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