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Spiritual Journey: One Year Later - Prestige Oil Spill Clean Up (c) Brian Bradley 2003-11

Spiritual Journey: One Year Later - Prestige Oil Spill Clean Up
Larino, Spain Brian Bradley 2003-11

It is funny sometimes just how a spiritual journey begins. I was watching CNN from my bike trainer when a broadcast came on about the Prestige oil tanker disaster in Spain. I saw people in white protective suits working and oil washing up on the beaches like molasses. Something clicked inside of me and my summer plans for a month of biking though Europe disintegrated. It took some searching and a few long distance telephone calls but on August 5, 2003 I arrived in Spain and made my way to the village of Larino to volunteer to work on the clean up. I backpacked, bussed and hitchhiked to get to the site and spent the next 21 days working at various sites near where we were camped.

Cape Finisterre (Land's End/End of the Earth), Spain has had three major oil disasters since 1976 earning it the nickname Costa da Morte (coast of death). On November 19, 2002, the 26-year-old, single-hulled oil tanker, Prestige, sank 140 nautical miles off the shoreline of Cape Finisterre - outside of Spains's 12 mile territorial limit - taking 50,000 tonnes of its 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil down to the bottom of the North Atlantic. One month after the disaster 33,000 gallons per day of the heavy crude continued to leak into the ocean and had impacted 183 beaches on the Spanish coastline at Galicia. It is estimated that the Prestige could leak its remaining cargo until 2006.

The Prestige was registered in the Bahamas by a company incorporated in Liberia. The ship was managed by another company headquartered in Greece but was chartered by a Russian company, Crown Resources, registered in Switzerland. The heavy fuel oil that was being transported from Latvia to Singapore, belonged to a British company. The captain of the Prestige was Greek and the crew was Filipino. Sounds like the making of a real international incident doesn't it.

The Prestige started leaking when it struck a floating cargo container in Spanish or Portuguese waters. The ship attempted to find a harbour, to escape from high winds and high seas, and to have the oil removed from the tanker but was refused assistance by both Portuguese and Spanish ships. A Spanish tug battled for 14 hours to hook the Prestige but the ship had already drifted within five miles of the Spanish coast leaking heavy crude oil for the duration. The tug pulled the Prestige further out to sea where the high waves and stormy seas eventually broke the ship in two. A slick from the tanker reached the northern Spanish regions of Asturias and Cantabria and other slicks made their way as far east as Basque Country. The Spanish government made decisions based on the hope or expectation that the remaining fuel oil would solidify in the cold Atlantic seabed.

The Spanish government closed the Galician fisheries and approximately 1,000 miles of coastline. This put most of Galicia's population out of work just before the peak of fishing and shellfish season and leaves the spectre of the potential for years of bad harvests. Galician fishermen number approximately 21,000, mostly family operations, and the Galician fleet is larger than the rest of the fishing fleets in Europe put together. Galician shellfish gatherers supply Western Europe with crabs, clams, cockles, mussels, and goose barnacles which are a finger-like shellfish native only in this area and bring the fishermen $13.50 per pound. There is an abundant population of other marine mammals including dolphins, porpoises and many species of whales which are a big tourist draw. The rugged Galician coastline is the winter habitat for North Atlantic and European seabirds such as razorbills, gannets, cormorants, guillemots, puffins, gulls and petrels. Environmental groups have estimated that some 15,000 birds have died and the Balearic shearwater and guillemots risk extinction. It will take more than 10 years for the shellfish population to revive and the mammals may never fully recover.

Some $50 million has already been spent on the clean-up and the costs to compensate the lost fishing industry have been estimated at $42 million. The Prestige was only insured for $25 million for cleanup costs and International Maritime Law has a $80 million cap on the amount that the owner of the ship has to pay towards clean-up. There is an International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, which is funded by nations that are consumers of oil, which will pay costs of up to $180 million. Spanish taxpayers will bear the burden of the any clean up costs in excess of these amounts.

The local council at Larino was allowing volunteers to use an old soccer pitch as a base of operations and we received some support from a regional social-political movement called Nunca Mais (Never Again). At the beginning of the disaster thousands of people took to the streets marching behind the Nunca Mais banner protesting the goverments mishandling of the disaster.

I am far from being a religious person but the experience for me was spiritual in a way I can't explain or understand. I think it must be similar to the way soldiers in a battle or war must feel about each other and what they are doing. The people become your brothers and sisters. The scope of the disaster and how we faced it together every day makes me feel both proud and very disgusted with the things we can do to our world.

The government in Spain would have the world think that the situation is fixed and that everything is okay. They are mostly concerned with the effects on tourism in the country. In reality, at the rate we were going, it will never be cleaned up. Initial public response saw thousands of volunteers pitching in with the clean up efforts but now, one year later, the numbers have dropped considerably. Most of the time there are 6-18 people working at the site doing the most disgusting, dirty job you could imagine. We were cleaning stony beaches by hand with putty knives and painting trowels. The oil now has the consistency of driveway sealer and despite the suits you still manage to get it all over you. The stones must be scraped and then wiped with a cloth before moving on to the next stone.

I am hoping in the future that there is still a volunteer group working there to organize a return visit but this time I don't want to go alone. Perhaps there is someone reading this story and might be provoked into doing something about it. I would be willing to share my experiences with anyone interested in going there to help. I think this would make a great movie - the combination of the story itself and the beauty of the people and the location has tremendous significance.

I just want to say also that doing something really meaningful in my life has put the last 20 years of my professional career in a different light.

Photos from Larino, Spain Brian Bradley 2003

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This page was created November 7, 2003 and updated February 4, 2008.