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Prestige oil spill

Prestige oil spill
Volunteers cleaning the coastline in Galicia in the aftermath of the Prestige catastrophe, March 2003
Location Atlantic Ocean
Date 19 November 2002
Cause Hull breach
Operator Universe Maritime Ltd.
Spill characteristics

The Prestige oil spill was an oil spill off the coast of Galicia caused by the sinking of an oil tanker in 2002. The spill polluted thousands of kilometers of coastline and more than one thousand beaches on the Spanish, French and Portuguese coast, as well as causing great harm to the local fishing industry. The spill is the largest environmental disaster in the history of both Spain and Portugal.


  • Event 1
  • Cleanup 2
  • Aftermath 3
    • Hull cleanup 3.1
    • Legal consequences 3.2
    • Investigation 3.3
  • Health problems among cleaning staff 4
  • Recent developments 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The Prestige was a Greek-operated, single-hulled oil tanker, officially registered in the Bahamas, but with a Liberian-registered single-purpose corporation as the owner.

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.

The French, Spanish and Portuguese governments refused to allow the Prestige to dock in their ports.

On November 13, 2002, while the Prestige was carrying 77,000 metric tons of 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 harbor. 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 south 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 quickly deteriorating and soon the storm took its toll when it was reported that a 40-foot (12 m) section of the starboard hull had broken off, releasing a substantial amount of oil.

At around 8:00 a.m. on November 19, the ship split in half. It sank the same afternoon, releasing over 20 million US gallons (76,000 m3) 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 cooperating 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, polluting the seabed and contaminating 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 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 with the help of neither the Galician nor the Spanish Government -both belonging to the conservative Partido Popular- to help clean the affected coastline. The massive cleaning campaign was a success, recovering most portions of coastline from not only the effects of the oil spill but also 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 remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). In total, 20 million US gallons (76,000 m3) of oil were spilled.

More than eighty percent 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 of course to humans as well.

The environmental damage caused by the "Prestige" was most severe in the coast of Galicia, where local activists founded the environmental movement Nunca Máis (Galician for Never Again), to denounce the passiveness of the conservative government regarding the disaster.


Hull cleanup

In the two years following the sinking, engineers used ROVs to seal cracks in the tanker's hull, now 4000 meters below the sea surface, and slowed the leakage to a trickle of 20 litres a day. By 2004, engineers had removed the oil still in the tanker by drilling small holes in the wreck, using remotely operated submersible vehicles (ROVs) like the one that originally explored the wreck of the RMS Titanic. The oil was then pumped into large aluminium shuttles, specially manufactured for this salvage operation. The filled shuttles were then floated to the surface. The original plan to fill large bags with the oil proved to be too problematic and slow. After the oil removal was completed, a slurry rich in microbiologic agents was pumped in the hold to speed up the breakdown of any remaining oil. The total estimated cost of the operation was over €100 million.

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. However, a court ruling in 2013 put the cost of the disaster at 368 million euros ($494 million) to the Spanish state, 145 million euros to the Spanish region of Galicia and 68 million euros to France.[1] The clean-up of the Exxon Valdez cost US$3 billion (almost €2.2 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 in to 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.

Legal consequences

For the world maritime industry, a key issue raised by the "Prestige" incident was whether classification societies can be held responsible for the consequences of incidents of this type. In May 2003, the Kingdom of Spain brought civil suit in the Southern District of New York against the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), the Houston-based international classification society that had certified the "Prestige" as "in class" for its final voyage. The "in class" status states that the vessel is in compliance with all applicable rules and laws, not that it is or is not safe. On 2 January 2007, the docket in that lawsuit (SDNY 03-cv-03573) was dismissed. The presiding judge ruled that ABS is a "person" as defined by the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC) and, as such, is exempt from direct liability for pollution damage. Additionally, the Judge ruled that, since the United States is not a signatory to the International CLC, the US Courts lack the necessary jurisdiction to adjudicate the case. Spain's original damage claim against ABS was some $700 million.

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.

Among the legal consequences of the disaster was the arrest of the captain of the "Prestige", Captain Mangouras. Captain Mangouras sought refuge for his seriously damaged vessel in a Spanish port. This is a request the acceptance of which has deep historic roots. Spain refused and the criminal charges against Captain Mangouras included his refusal to comply immediately with the Spanish demand to restart the engines of the "Prestige" and steam offshore. It is an unanswerable question whether bringing the ship into port and booming around her to contain the leaking oil would have been less harmful than sending her back to sea and almost inevitable sinking.[2]


The massive environmental and financial costs of the spill have 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 the Coulouthros family[3] who masked the ownership with a network of front companies and registered the ship to a front company in Liberia. Thus the sinking of the "Prestige" has exposed the difficulties in regulations 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.

Spanish investigators have concluded that the failure in the hull of the "Prestige" was entirely predictable and indeed had been predicted already: her two sister ships, "Alexandros" and "Centaur", had been submitted to extensive inspections under the "Safe Hull" program in 1996. The organization 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 between frames 61 and 71 within five years. "Alexandros", "Centaur" and a third sister-ship, "Apanemo", were all scrapped between 1999 and 2002. For some reason, however, "Prestige" was not scrapped, and, little more than five years after the inspection, as predicted, her hull failed between frames 61 and 71.[4]

Health problems among cleaning staff

Five years later after the cleaning activities, a study found that people participating in the cleaning activities, many of them volunteers, suffered several health problems, such as pulmonary, cardiovascular, and chromosomal diseases. This was found among a study of 800 involved Spanish Navy personnel.[5]

Recent developments

In March 2006, new oil slicks were detected near the wreck of the "Prestige", slicks which investigators found to match the type of oil the "Prestige" carried. A study released in December 2006 led by José Luis De Pablos, a physicist at Madrid's Center for Energetic and Environmental Research, concluded that 16,000 to 23,000 tons of oil remained in the wreck, as opposed to the 700 to 1300 tons claimed by the Spanish government; that bioremediation of the remaining oil failed; and that bacteria corroding the hull could soon produce a rupture and quickly release much of the remaining oil and create another catastrophic spill. The report urged the government to take "prompt" action.[6]

In March 2009, eight years after the instruction of the "Prestige" case began in the Corcubion Court, UDNG, a small independentist Galician Party, analyzed some of the main facts in the instruction as evidence of strong corruption in Spain's judicial system.[7]

Prestige oil spill trial date is finally set 10 years after Galicia coast was blighted. The date for the trial against officers and merchant shipping companies over the Prestige disaster has been set for October 16, 2012, the Galicia regional High Court announced on Monday, 14 June 2012. The initial hearing began on 16 June 2012 and is the expected to be adjorned until November - the tenth anniversary of the disaster. The trial will be held in a specially constructed courtroom in A Coruña’s exhibition complex, where it will consider evidence from 133 witnesses and 98 experts.[8][9][10]

In November 2013 the three judges of the high court concluded it was impossible to establish criminal responsibility and Captain Apostolos Mangouras, Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos and the former head of Spain's Merchant Navy, Jose Luis Lopez, were found not guilty of crimes against the environment. The captain was however accused of disobeying government authorities who wanted the 26-year-old tanker as far from the coast as possible. According to the court, that decision was correct and Mangouras, 78 at the time, was found guilty of disobedience and given a nine month suspended sentence.[11] The Spanish government decided to launch an appeal to the ruling against the exemption from civil liability of the captain.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b AFP, 21 November 2013
  2. ^ "Monitoring | Media reports | Press condemns tanker disaster". BBC News. 2002-11-20. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  3. ^ Frontline/World, Spain, the Lawless Sea, January 2004, retrieved November 14, 2013 from
  4. ^ Mercado, Francisco, El Pais, June 9, 2008, "El fallo estructural que hundió al 'Prestige' era conocido desde 1996", retrieved June 9, 2008 from
  5. ^ Ojea A. Un estudio detecta problemas de salud entre los voluntarios del "Prestige". El Norte de Castilla. 2007/10/02.
  6. ^ Science, Vol. 314, December 22, 2006, p. 1861.
  7. ^ "QUILMAS.COM | plataforma pola defensa do patrimonio cultural de quilmas". 2008-02-17. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  8. ^ El País, 21 June 2012
  9. ^ "Regulation - Spanish court to hear accusations over Prestige oil disaster - Lloyd's List". 2012-10-15. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  10. ^ "BBC News - Spain Prestige oil spill disaster case in court". 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  11. ^ RigZone, 13 November 2013
  • Prestige oil spill far worse than thought, article from New Scientist, August 27, 2003

External links

  • Perte totale suite à avarie de coque du petrolier bahaméen Prestige survenue dans l'ouest de la Galice." (Archive) - Bureau d'Enquêtes sur les Événements de Mer - 13–19 November 2002 (French)
  • Plataforma Nunca Máis, Prestige activists (in Galician)
  • Coordination Technical Bureau of Scientific Intervention Program against Accidental Marine Spills, This bureau is responsible for management and coordination works of research projects.
  • Spill Response Experience Coordination Action - SPREEX This project is responsible for management and coordination research needs in Europe.
  • WWF crisis response page on Prestige
  • Prestige Oil Spill - first hand story of a Canadian volunteer, with photos
  • Maps and statistics of affected coastal area
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