The Prestige was an oil tanker whose sinking in 2002 off the Galician coast caused a large oil spill. The spill polluted thousands of kilometers of coastline and more than one thousand beaches on the Spanish and French coast, as well as causing great damage to the local fishing industry. The spill is the largest environmental disaster in Spain's history.
The ship had a deadweight tonnage, or carrying capacity, of approximately 81,000 tons, a measurement that put it at the small end of the "aframax" class of tankers, smaller than most carriers of crude oil but larger than most carriers of refined products. It was classed by the American Bureau of Shipping and insured by the London Steam-Ship Owners' Mutual Insurance Association, a shipowners' mutual known as the London Club.
On November 13, 2002, while the Prestige was carrying a 77,000-ton cargo of two different grades of heavy fuel oil, one of its twelve tanks burst during a storm off Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Fearing that the ship would sink, the captain called for help from Spanish rescue workers, with the expectation that the vessel would be brought into harbour. However, pressure from local authorities forced the captain to steer the embattled ship away from the coast and head northwest. Reportedly after pressure from the French government, the vessel was once again forced to change its course and head southwards into Portuguese waters in order to avoid endangering France's southern coast. Fearing for its own shore, the Portuguese authorities promptly ordered its navy to intercept the ailing vessel and prevent it from approaching further. With the French, Spanish and Portuguese governments refusing to allow the ship to dock in their ports, the integrity of the single hulled oil tanker was deteriorating quickly and soon the storm took its toll when it was reported that a huge 40-foot section of the starboard hull had broken off, releasing a substantial amount of oil.
At around 8:00 AM on November 19, the ship split in half, and sank completely that same afternoon releasing over 20 million gallons of oil into the sea. The oil tanker was reported to be about 250 kilometers from the Spanish coast at that time. An earlier oil slick had already reached the coast. The Greek captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Mangouras, was taken into custody, accused of not co-operating with salvage crews and of harming the environment.
After the sinking, the wreck continued leaking oil. It leaked approximately 125 tons of oil a day, which polluted the sea bed and contaminated the coastline, especially along the territory of Galicia. The affected area is not only a very important ecological region, supporting coral reefs and many species of sharks and birds, but it also supports the crucial fishing industry. The heavy coastal pollution forced the region's government to suspend offshore fishing for six months.
In the subsequent months, thousands of volunteers were organized by the Galician and Spanish Governments to help clean the affected coastline. The massive cleaning campaign was a success, recovering most portions of coastline not only from the effects of the oil spill but also from the accumulated usual contamination. A year after the spill Galicia had more Blue Flags for its beaches (an award for those beaches with the highest standards in the European Union) than in the previous years.
Initially, the government thought just 17,000 tons of oil had been lost, and that the remaining 60,000 tons would freeze and not leak from the sunken tanker. In early 2003, it announced that half of the oil had been lost. Now that figure has risen to about 63,000 tons according to some sources. In 2004 the remaining 13.000 m³ of cargo oil was removed from the wreck, by means of aluminium shuttles and remote operated vehicles. In total, 20 million gallons of oil were spilled.
More than eighty per cent of the tanker's 77,000 tons of fuel oil is now thought to have been spilled off Spain's north-west coast.
Experts predicted marine life could suffer pollution from the Prestige for at least ten years due to the type of oil spilt, which contain light fractions called polyaromatic hydrocarbons. These toxic chemicals could poison plankton, fish eggs and crustaceans, leading to carcinogenic effects in fish and other animals higher in the food chain.
The environmental damage caused by the Prestige was most severe in the coast of Galicia, where some local activists founded the environmental movement Nunca Máis (Galician for Never Again), dedicated to "agit-prop" against the government.
A recent report by the Galicia-based Barrie de la Maza economic institute criticised the Spanish government's handling of the catastrophe. It estimated the cost of the clean-up to the Galician coast alone at €2.5 billion. The clean-up of the Exxon Valdez cost US$3 billion.
Since the disaster, oil tankers similar to the Prestige have been directed away from the French and Spanish coastlines. The then European Commissioner for Transport, Spaniard Loyola de Palacio, pushed for the ban of single-hulled tankers.
The government was criticized for its decision to tow the ailing wreck out to sea — where it split in two — rather than into a port. World Wildlife Fund's senior policy officer for shipping, Simon Walmsley believed most of the blame lay with the classification society. "It was reported as being substandard at one of the ports it visited before Spain. The whole inspection regime needs to be revamped and double-hulled tankers used instead," he says. The US and most other countries are phasing out single-hulled tankers by 2012.
International maritime trade publications including TradeWinds, Fairplay and Lloyd's List regularly presented the dispute as a possibly precedent-setting one that could prove fateful for international classification societies, whose assets are dwarfed by the scale of claims to which they could become subject.
The Spanish government had promised an investment plan for Galicia across several years, which was cancelled by the Socialist Party after the change in Government in March 2004. In the following local elections, the People's Party got good results at the affected Costa da Morte.
The environmental devastation caused is at least on a par, if not worse, than the Exxon Valdez. The amount of oil spilled is more than the Valdez and the toxicity is higher, because of the higher temperatures.|20px|20px|Simon Walmsley|World Wildlife Fund's senior policy officer for shipping.
The massive environmental and financial costs of the spill has resulted in an ongoing inquiry into how a structurally deficient ship was able to travel out to sea, much less approach Spain.
Investigators have since learned that prior to the spill the Prestige had set sail from St. Petersburg, Russia, without being properly inspected. It traveled to the Atlantic via the shallow and vulnerable Baltic Sea. A previous captain who complained about numerous structural deficiencies within the ship was rebuffed, and later resigned in protest.
The ownership of the Prestige is unclear, making it difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for the oil spill. Evidence is now pointing to a secretive Greek family who allegedly registered the ship to a front company in Liberia. Thus the Prestige sinking has exposed the difficulties in regulation posed by flags of convenience.
Others have argued that the Spanish government's refusal to allow the ship to take refuge in a sheltered port was a major contributing factor to the scale of the disaster.
Recently, Spanish investigators have concluded that the failure in the Prestige's hull was entirely predictable and indeed had been predicted already: the Prestige's two sister ships, Alexandros and Centaur, had been submitted to extensive inspections under the "Safe Hull" program in 1996. The company which was in charge of the inspections, the American Bureau of Shipping, found that both Alexandros and Centaur were in terminal decline. Due to metal fatigue in their hulls, modeling predicted that both ships would fail at holds 61 and 71 within five years. Alexandros, Centaur and a third sister ship, Apanemo were scrapped between 1999 and 2002. For some reason, however, Prestige was not scrapped, and, little more than five years after the inspection, as predicted, Prestige's hull failed between holds 61 and 71.