REFLECTIONS ON ‘EL PRESTIGE’ OIL DISASTER: (Part 1) Two years on, the killer spill continues

News analysis by TONY SEED, Copy edited by GARY ZATZMAN

Part One of a four-part series. Part Two is here, Part Three is here, and Part Four is yet to be published.


ON 14 MARCH 2004 the Spanish people voted to bury the Popular Party government of José María Aznar. This brought to an end eight years’ rule by a pro-Franco politician who dragged the Spanish people into the American occupation of Iraq and the massacre of the Iraqi people against their express will.

Aznar’s clique was especially detested in the northwestern Spanish province of Galicia, where the oil tanker Prestige sank in late 2002, spreading massive pollution of marine fauna and beaches, destroying tens of thousands’ of people’s livelihoods in the rich fishery of the region, and where Manuel Fraga Iribarne – the founder of Aznar’s party, Franco’s last police minister and a fascist-era relic – still retains a regional grip on power. Forests are being felled as we speak to provide the paper to print the oceans of commentary concerning the impact of Aznar’s defeat on the future of other European governments that signed on to the Bush administration’s so-called “coalition of the willing” – many of whom, like Aznar’s clique, have coveted access to Iraqi oil.

Aznar himself, in less than a month, secured a position at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, close to the White House. As the ally of this superpower, Aznar was influential in instigating several Central American governments such as Honduras and Costa Rica to send their youth as cannon fodder to Iraq. It was Aznar too who, in a meeting with the President of the United States on 13 April 1999, at a time when the war against Yugoslavia was getting bogged down, gave him this advice, and we quote: “If we are involved in a war, let’s be totally involved, to win, and not just a little bit involved. If we need to go on for a month, three months, let’s do it. I don’t understand why we still haven’t bombed Serbian radio and television stations.” Hours later NATO ordered the beginning of Phase 2, and the bombings were stepped up, as were the number and diversity of the targets to be destroyed. The NATO attack killed ten civilian media workers the next day.

Meanwhile the Spanish people continue to struggle with the fallout from that other oil crisis, the eco-terrorism of the Prestige disaster, which has largely disappeared from view in the North American media.

“Cracked and corroded” … and seaworthy nevertheless: An outline of the basic plot

The Bahamas-registered ‘Prestige’ oil tanker is seen broken in two before sinking into the Atlantic Ocean some 150 miles off Spain’s coast in the Atlantic Ocean Tuesday Nov. 19, 2002. The stricken tanker carrying 77,000 metric tons, 20.5 million gallons, was towed some 244 kilometres, 152 miles, off the coast when it sank creating an environmental disaster off the northwest coast of Spain and Portugal. (AP Photo/EFE/Spanish Navy)

HALIFAX (15 March 2004) – On 19 November 2002 a storm in Finisterre off the Galician coast of Spain punched a hole through the rusty hull of the oil tanker Prestige – a 26-year-old, single-hulled tanker owned in Greece, registered in Liberia, flagged to the Bahamas and carrying Russian oil. As it listed, its 77,000 tons of high sulfuric oil began to leak out into the richest fishing grounds in the European Union, taking with it the livelihood of tens of thousands of people who say that in Galicia, all they have is the sea. The damage will remain for decades and is already considered one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes.

Galicia is where people get up before dawn to stand knee-deep in frigid water and harvest the clams and cockles that Spain loves. They dodge dangerous waves to cut from the rock a species called the goose barnacle, a black, finger-shaped creature that costs a small fortune. You steam it, snap it in two and suck out pink, gelatinous flesh.

Atlantic Canada and Galicia share historical ties: many of the trawlers and schooners that have fished the Newfoundland Grand Banks over the centuries hail from the traditional fishing port of Vigo.

Break-up of the oil tanker Prestige. Click on image to enlarge

Galicia is a culturally rich region that has its own language, and was the birthplace of the late fascist dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. The regional president is the octogenarian Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the only Franco-era minister who still holds office. Fraga was Franco’s information minister, minister of the interior and the mentor of Antonio Samaranch, former head of the International Olympics Committee, an unabashed backer of the fascist regime that nominally ended in 1975. Fraga refused to even visit the coast, saying he would rather address the disaster from Santiago de Compostela, the seat of the regional government.

Far from being limited in its significance or impact to a patch of water off Spain, this disaster and the struggle to overcome its effects have become emblematic.

This very same tanker had been “inspected” by Canadian ship inspectors in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia just four years before, on 28 November 1998.

Just six months before it sank, it was declared seaworthy after an “inspection” by the Houston-based American Bureau of Shipping, or ABS.

Describing the condition of the Prestige, its former captain informed the owners and the ship’s inspectors that it had “cracked and corroded beam parts” in a port ballast tank, as well as a leaky boiler and other troubles in the engine room. He communicated those concerns three months after an inspection by ABS had declared it seaworthy, and three months before it sank. (“Troubling Tales on the High Seas,” Mark Schapiro, Los Angeles Times, 8 January 2004 )

An ecological, political and social bomb

Drift pattern of the oil spill. Click on image to enlarge

THE “DEATH COAST” is now the name given to Spain’s northwestern coastline which has seen so many shipping accidents over the years. Close to 1,800 miles of coastline were polluted. About 100,000 people lost work for six months or more; the economic cost of the disaster to fishing and tourism is put at close to 5 billion dollars, according to the European Union. Experts say the sunken Prestige could continue leaking fuel oil until 2006. It is the worst ecological disaster in the history of the picturesque Cantabrian coast, and far exceeds the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in March 1989, spilling nearly twice as much oil. The region’s seabirds, fish stocks, marine mammals and coastal plant life were all decimated by the disaster. More than a thousand beaches from southwest France to Portugal were polluted.

Cabo Vilón, Galicia

A series of ill-advised initiatives on the part of the reactionary Spanish government – massively opposed for its servile participation in Bush and Blair’s “coalition of the willing” in the war against Iraq – served to deepen the crisis, which had reached critical proportions by the sixth day when the ship broke in two and sank into the polluted sea.

Just over one year later the shattered hull of the Prestige was still bleeding an estimated six to twenty tons of oil into the ocean every day from its resting spot, 3,000 metres under the surface of the Atlantic, in an area some 210 kilometres (130 miles) off Cape Finisterre. There are 14,000 tons still inside the ship but the rescue operations are too late for animal and plant life.

Dark day for the Death Coast

An entire generation of fish, mollusks and crustaceans is lost. An estimated 300,000 birds have perished so far, making it one of Europe’s worst wildlife disasters. There are still thousands of tons of oil on the sea bed and coastline from the tip of Galicia to southwest France, despite desperate efforts by thousands of volunteers involved in the clean up operation.

Despite denials by government-appointed and government-paid experts, the terrible contamination could reach even deeper than previously suspected. Oil begins to enter the food chain as tentative fishing begins once more. Studies of the carcinogenic threat to humans have begun, but findings will not be available for some years, and are sure to be tragic. A study published by the University of Vigo warns that high levels of toxic chemicals have been found in sea food.

Shifting the blame: French report blames Spain and Spain blames Gibraltar

People came forward to clean-up – village of Caion, Galicia

SPAIN HAS been severely criticized by French officials for its handling of the disaster. An official French judicial panel, commissioned by legislator Philippe de Villiers from the Vendee region in southern France, whose coastlines were covered by the spilt oil, said Madrid’s actions during and after the spill had exacerbated the tragedy. Highly critical of the Spanish government, the report claims that Madrid’s actions made matters worse by preventing emergency crews from boarding the tanker until they had agreed to tow it out to sea.

Fisher folk mobilize, November 23, 2002

“Good sense should have told them to bring it into the port of La Coruna” to prevent the oil spreading so far. De Villiers said he would begin legal action against the Spanish government in view of the enormity of Spain’s liability revealed by the report.

The Spanish government and the European Union both sought to deflect blame by castigating Britain and its colonial outpost of Gibraltar for failing to properly inspect the Prestige. The tanker had not been inspected since 1999. “Both the Spanish government and the EU commission appear to have shot from the hip,” Gibraltar’s governor told AFP. “On this occasion they both appear to have shot themselves in the foot.” The Prestige had visited the colony only once in the past four years and was not officially heading there on this trip.

The Spanish government has also filed a lawsuit in US federal court against ABS – which inspected the ship – asking for billions of dollars in damages; ABS has countersued the Spanish, alleging the damage from the spill resulted from the government’s handling of the disaster.

Unable to plug the hole in the ship or blame foreign interests, the Spanish government of José María Aznar sought to dam the tide of negative press by flooding the region with money and professions of official concern. Aznar was president of the Spanish government and leader of the governing party, the Popular Party (PP). itself founded by Mr. Fraga Iribarne, Minister of the Interior in Franco’s fascist regime (in charge of Spain’s political police); he is still the president of the Party. (See sidebar, “The Case of Mr. Aznar, Friend of Bush,” below)

A lady who used to harvest clams

In the first months after the disaster, fisher-folk, shell fishermen and women, net makers and shopkeepers were given 40 EUROS a day in compensation. Though much of this pittance went straight into the pockets of the local capitalists, the sweetener worked temporarily, and all the Popular Party mayors held their seats in the May 2002 elections.

It is a vote bank strategy reminiscent of that used by the federal Liberals on Cape Breton Island in the federal elections in 2000 and throughout Atlantic Canada since the devastation of the cod fishery throughout the 1990s. Amidst the controversy over seismic oil and gas testing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the crisis in the coal mines and steel mill, the then-Chrétien government promised millions in wharf improvements and environmental clean-ups as well as a so-called “consultation process.”

Aznar promised to implement the so-called Plan Galicia with 13 billion EUROS for economic and ecological recovery. But the 2004 budget allocates just seven per cent of this total to the region.

The deadly tide continues to batter the Galician coast. As well as the oil still inside the ship, between 10 and 13 million tons remain out at sea off northern Spain. The few fishing boats that have ventured out at all return will their hulls stained a foul black.

Experts claim that the clean-up operation will take ten years at least, longer still to restore the decimated ecosystem. Further consequences lurk in the murky depths of the dying ocean. Pouring money into the region is no solution. Aznar’s government lists in the political storm and northern Spain weeps thick black tears.

“Nunca Mais”: Spanish people take action against cover-up

December 1, 2002 demonstration in Santiago de Compostela

THE SPANISH PEOPLE stood up against this anti-social offensive and the disinformation of the state to shift the blame. Thousands of people immediately came forward to take matters into their own hands by desperately trying to clean up the coastlines. They demanded full reparations, not “make work” projects and short-term compensation.

Within a few weeks after the disaster, over 200,000 people marched in the region against the government at the end of November, 2002.

On 13 November 2003 hundreds of thousands again marched in northwestern Spain to protest the government’s handling of the disaster. The group “Never Again” (“Nunca Mais”) – the slogan of the anti-Franco, anti-fascist resistance during the Spanish Civil War and again in the 1970s – organized protests at 20 sites in Galicia.

Among the slogans used by protesters was “365 Days of Incompetence.”

December 1st: 200,000 people in Santiago de Compostela.

December 11th: 150,000 people in Vigo; 40,000 in Pontevedra; 15,000 in Santiago de Compostela; 15,000 in Ourense; 5,000 in A Coruña (Corunna).

Demonstrations continued into 2003. 23 February 2003

December 15th: 50,000 people in Barcelona.

December 19th: 100,000 people in Madrid.

For their part, environmental organizations released reports earlier in November asserting that five to ten thousand tons of the Prestige cargo are floating offshore in Spanish and French waters, occasionally washing onto the beaches.

The World Wildlife Fund accused the Spanish government of an on-going cover-up. Its report, entitled The Prestige: One Year On, A Continuing Disaster, accuses the Spanish government of failing to clean up the coast of Galicia, the province worst affected by the spill. The report says the tanker has spilt 64,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, 60 per cent more than first estimated, and that 5-10,000 tons are still floating offshore, with some reaching the coast from time to time. It affirms that 13,000 tons remain in the wreck.

The report also criticizes Spain for re-opening the fishing grounds too soon; some local fishermen’s groups say their catches have fallen by 80 per cent. Raul Garcia of WWF-Spain, the report’s author, said: “If the Spanish Government continues to declare that the situation is under control, this looks like a cover-up rather than a clean-up.” Garcia said that government’s management of the catastrophe has neither been driven by environmental criteria, nor has it been transparent. Dr. Simon Walmsley, a WWF marine pollution expert, said the international community needs a fundamental change in the way the shipping industry is operated and regulated globally.

Oil and chemical bulk carriers

THE EUROPEAN Commission released a blacklist of 66 ships that it considers to be too dangerous for European waters. The 66 shamed ships, including oil and chemical bulk carriers, had been “named and shamed” in an attempt to avoid the further exploitation of lax standards that led to the decrepit Prestige entering European waters in such an unsafe condition in the first place. A EU commission also wants all single-hulled tankers, like the Prestige, banned from transporting fuel oil through European waters.

The dangerous vessels include 26 sailing under the Turkish flag, while 12 are flagged to St Vincent and Grenadines in the Caribbean and nine to Cambodia. A total of 13 flags are represented. The Commission said all the ships on the list of shame had been detained in European ports on several occasions in the past for failing to comply with safety rules.

“Words are not enough: it is necessary to act and apply the maritime safety measures in full,” said European Transport Commissioner Loyala de Palacio on the BBC. “Safety is the responsibility of everyone and a strict application of all the measures is the only way of ensuring that substandard ships do not fall through the safety net.” Greenpeace, meanwhile, estimates that more than 3,600 oil freighters are playing the seas that don’t meet safety requirements.

Current international regulations recently approved by the EU, the United States and the International Maritime Organization require that single-hulled tankers built before 1973 be withdrawn from use by 2007. The European Union is ordering the eventual decommission of all single-hulled oil tankers; however, the deadline for decommission is the year 2015. The double-hulled structure means there are two layers of fortification between the cargo and the ocean. The tanker Jessica, which caused the Galapagos oil spill in 2001, was also a single-hulled tanker and thought to be 28-30 years old. In the meantime, these unsafe ships ply the seas, making another major oil spill inevitable. They go where the oil multinationals send them.

At the same time, an inexpensive and highly effective hull design for a tanker that would scoop spilled oil and displace it with water, using Archimedes Principle, has been developed in the United Arab Emirates by Dr. Omar Chaalal and his associates. However, the response within the European Union has been negative, insisting on first developing a $100-million prototype at a virtually bankrupt shipyard in Nantes, France. Meanwhile the multinational chemical industries in both the European Union and the United States are bitterly opposing the new technologies that eliminate the current need for what are called surfactants and other similar means for coagulating spilt oil.

A 2000 international inquiry report on the shipping industry by the International Commission on Shipping — involving freighters, cruise boats and tankers — called classification societies into question. “Classification societies were variously described as inflexible, unresponsive, incompetent, inept and, in some cases, corrupt.”

From files from Radio Havana Cuba, Agence France Presse, and the Canadian Nature Federation, and The Telegram (St. Johns, NF).


Yesterday (March 14) the Spanish people voted to bury the Popular Party government of Jose Maria Aznar. This brought to an end eight years’ rule by a pro-Franco politician who dragged the Spanish people into the American occupation of Iraq against their express will. Aznar’s clique were especially detested in the northwestern Spanish province of Galicia, where the oil tanker Prestige sank in late 2002 spreading massive pollution of marine fauna and beaches, destroying tens of thousands’ of people’s livelihood in the rich fishery of the region, and where Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the founder of Aznar’s party, Franco’s last police minister and a fascist-era relic still retains a regional grip on power. Forests are being felled as we speak to provide the paper to print the oceans of commentary concerning the impact of Aznar’s defeat on the future of other European governments that signed on to the Bush administration’s so-called “coalition of the willing,” many of whom, like Aznar’s clique, covet access to Iraqi oil. Meanwhile Spain continues to struggle with the fallout from that other oil crisis, the Prestige disaster, which has largely disappeared from view in the North American media.

Web sites of interest

–  Universidad de Vigo:

–  Finisterrae (Buscador de la Costa da Morte):

–  Plataforma Nunca Máis:

–  Instituto Hidrográfico portugués:

–  Centro de documentación de investigación y experimentación sobre los productos tóxicos del agua:

–  Greenpeace:

–  Fondo Mundial para la Naturaleza:

–  Foto del satélite Envisat del ESA:

* * * * *

Media Culpa

The case of Mr. Aznar, friend of Bush


Azner and Rumsfeld

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is behind a bill in the House Committee on Financial Services to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, in gratitude for being “a staunch and steadfast ally” (i.e., supporting the Iraq war against the wishes of 90 per cent of the Spanish people). In Rumsfeld’s narrative he is “a representative of the New Europe,” and a man that leading Democrats (not to be perceived as less welcoming) have referred to in equally laudatory terms. Even the Democratic-controlled California Assembly gave him a standing ovation.

The media in Canada and the United States repeatedly refers to him as a “conservative.” More critical media would have made some inquiries about the about Aznar and the governing party, the Popular Party (PP). Actually, his political roots are fascist.

–  As a teenager he was a Falangist during Franco’s regime. His father and grandfather played critical and prominent roles in the Franco regime.

–  When democracy was reinstated in Spain in 1978, Aznar opposed the new Constitution that established the new democracy.

–  Aznar denounced the Basque town of Guernica – made famous worldwide by Picasso’s painting of its wanton destruction by Hitler’s aircraft during the Spanish Civil War and – for renaming “General Franco Square” as “Liberty Square” after the dictator’s death. Painted at the request of the Spanish republican government, Guernica became an international symbol of the fight against fascism and the Franco regime. Aznar wanted to keep the old name.

–  The Spanish Supreme Court, appointed by the Aznar government, has even refused to change the legal status of those who, assassinated by the Franco regime because of their struggle for liberty and freedom, remain defined as “criminals” in Spain.

–  Aznar defied the instructions of the UN Human Rights Agency to help families to find the bodies of the more than 30,000 people who disappeared – the desaparecidos – during the Franco regime.

–  In the summer of 2003, Aznar’s government approved the imposition on all primary and secondary school students of religion classes (basically classes on Catholicism), which will consume almost as many hours of the curriculum as mathematics.

Aznar is the leader of the governing Popular Party, founded by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Minister of the Interior in Franco’s fascist regime (in charge of Spain’s political police). Iribarne is president of the party. Iribarne has always professed great admiration for General Franco and has never condemned Spain’s fascist regime, responsible for one of Europe’s cruelest dictatorships (more than 200,000 Spaniards were killed or died in concentration camps during Franco’s regime). Actually, Fraga Iribarne has defined the Franco government as Spain’s best regime in the twentieth century. His most recent contribution to “setting history straight” was to write a prologue to a book (The Historical Lie Finally Denounced in Spanish, written by a friend of his, T. M. Bereiro) that denies the existence of the Holocaust. He was Aznar’s mentor and anointed him as his successor. To award Aznar Congress’s highest honour would insult the soldiers who died during World War II in the fight against fascism.

Such a gentleman has been the mentor of Jose Maria Aznar, choosing him as his successor as leader of the PP. In a poll in 1982, 54 per cent of PP members thought the Franco regime had been good for Spain.

How is it possible that none of these facts have been published in Canada and the US? To what level have the double standards of the media sunk? They have reported, sometimes critically, on Berlusconi of Italy, who governs in alliance with Fini, an admirer of Mussolini, who has been welcomed in Israel by the Zionist government. But among Berlusconi’s many faults we do not find a fascist past of which he is proud. Aznar is proud of his fascist past, and no one in the Canadian and US media has made any comment on this.

Quite remarkable!

Adapted by Shunpiking Online from several articles by Vicente Navarro, the author of The Political Economy of Social Inequalities: Consequences for Health and Quality of Life and Dangerous to Your Health. Prof Navarro teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at

Our series

REFLECTIONS ON ‘EL PRESTIGE’ OIL DISASTER: (Part 1) Two years on, the killer spill continues

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 2) The marine environment and sovereignty – lessons for Canada

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRESTIGE OIL DISASTER: (Part 3) ‘Don’t make me fish off Cape St. Mary’s’


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