case study: the politics of irresponsibility November and December 2002
31.12.02 [A local
Volunteers from the area are calling the Prestige disaster our
Chernobyl. But the damage will not be just to the ecology or the
economy. As with Chernobyl, public health is also endangered.
Soldiers are allocated to collect oil from near-inaccessible areas, while
volunteers continue to clean the beaches, yet again. Despite the precaution
of protective clothing, the oil goes everywhere, up sleeves, into boots
and gloves, on the face.
And for every 1 tonne of fuel oil that
the wreck of the Prestige throws out, the workers have to clear up 10
tonnes of a melange of a fuel-oil-and-water emulsion mixed with sand,
thus transformed by the agitation of the waves and the addition of beach
The fuel oil from the Prestige is dangerous, containing over
50% of aromatic
hydrocarbons [n.b. site in French], highly carcinogenic and
acutely toxic. Not only will the toxins have effect on those
working on the clean-up, but the poisons from the oil will enter the food
chain and will remain within it over, maybe, many years.
Black tide Aznar accused.
Anger rises after a month of battle against the oil
Galician anger at the Spanish government does not lessen. They
have contempt for us is the refrain along the Galician coast. Why
was the Prestige, leaking oil, pulled up and down the coast for
several days, before being left to sink in a place too deep to pump the
holds? Why was Madrid so slow to organise help? Why did the government
number two, Mariano Rajoy, hasten to say that the oil would solidify at
3,500 metres, only to later admit that the wreck continued to leak? Why
did Aznar wait a month before coming to Galicia and admitting (merely)
to organisational errors being made?
In all the ports, in all the villages, the walls are daubed with Aznar,
Rajoy, Fraga, resign . Fraga, a former minister under Franco and
now head of the local Galician government for thirteen years, now has
few friends or supporters, having gone a-hunting to shoot partridges during
the first weekend of the crisis, rather stay in Galicia.
The politicians are scornful of us. They know that in this region
live the largest number of outmoded and religious bigots, capable of thinking
that the Virgin Mary will divert the oil towards America and save our
fish. The politicians laugh at us because they know that we are the last
true poor in Spain, that we always suffer in silence or emigrate, and
better still, that we are sufficiently moronic to vote in large numbers
for the Conservative party in power. Tell my mother that she should vote
Socialist and she will quickly make ten signs of the cross to wash away
Meanwhile, local Galicians have contempt for their politicians: the three
weeks delay in sending help, a fishing minister who said that there
was no oil slick, an environment minister who orders ministry stickers
be put on all the bulldozers and lorries, used to move the oil collected
by the volunteers, to show how efficient the ministry is being.
But if the older generation will not betray the Conservative camp, the
young have broken completely with the local political and voting tradition.
The Prestige affair has made them become more left and
nationalist. The [Conservative] Popular Party will pay dearly for their
errors in managing this crisis in the council elections next May.
According to the Voice of Galicia newspaper,
who have access to court documents, the captain of the Prestige
suggested mooring his ship close to the coast to enable the holds to be
pumped. The Spanish authorities sent the ship into the open sea
and there the hole became a lot larger. This was an error, it was necessary
to take the ship to a calm area and transfer the cargo, Captain
Apostolos Mangouras said. He had offered to the Spanish authorities to
stop his ship drifting by anchoring it four miles off-shore, using two
anchors with 325 metre-long chains. He had also twice asked for tugs to
try and maintain the ship in position until the weather became calmer.
Each time, the response of the authorities was negative.
The ecologists, the Socialist Party and the Galicians, questioning Madrids
decisions since the start, reckon that the government have made the disaster
worse. Remember, the government acted on the advice of experts
and in order to avoid an economic catastrophe in Galicia.
We have to recall, however, that fishing has now been stopped on the Galician
coast during the usually lucrative Christmas period.
19.12.02 An excellent summary history of
the Prestige spill and the responses of Spanish politicians has
Wired News. This article
describes how the apathy and dissembling of the politicians has been disarmed
through Internet communication, both by posting information and by enabling
coordination of sane responses.
de Galicia site (the local marine organisation) gives links
to associated information on the spill in the Galician region. The pages
available include maps of local wind directions (live updates colourfully
pretty), and current predicted slick movements from the wreck and towards
Note: unless you understand Spanish, educated guesses and experiment are
needed for site navigation.
how politicians avoid their responsibilities
Having hoped that the problem would just go away, then trying
to blame everyone in sight, after being forced finally to attend but then
obfuscating by only talking of the clear-up, the Spanish Prime Minister
has been forced to comment on his governments ridiculous actions
in the early days of the threat, a threat which has now become a major
disaster as a result of those actions.
I am convinced that the decision that was taken is the
correct one and that to distance the ship (from the coast) was the least
bad of all possible decisions. And I take responsibility for that decision
with all its consequences, Aznar told parliament.
After admitting that much, the buck is passed and passed again:
Development Minister Francisco Alvarez Cascos took the initial
decision to have the Prestige towed out to sea after it was holed in
a storm off the northwestern Spanish coast last month, releasing a flood
of foul-smelling fuel oil.
Officials said Cascos made the decision after consulting five civil
servants, including a port captain and the head of the merchant navy.
So, it wasnt Aznar, it was Cascos; but, of course, it wasnt
Cascos either, it was shadowy civil servants.
Experts, like the captain of the tanker and the worlds top salvage
experts, had been ignored when the government attempted to force the problem
off their doorstep. Government sources had tried to belittle Smit Salvages
assessment; and maybe the captain is still being held as another potential
Further, despite earlier experiences of similar lesser disasters in the
locality, there had been little preparation for action to stop the problems.
Meanwhile, Spain is angling for a large bonus from the rest of Europe,
rather than having to pay vast compensation running into billions, as
occured with Exxon.
He estimated that EU aid from various programmes would total
around 265 million euros ($270 million).
In Galicia, another demonstration, 50,000 strong, took place, this time
accusing their political leaders of irresponsibility and inefficiency
which led to the terrible consequences on the Galician shores. The demonstrators
called for both Jose Maria Aznar and the Galician regional president,
Manuel Fraga, to resign.
aznar continues to attempt to evade responsibility
Aznar continually refers to lack of resources available to clear up, while
attempting to fudge the egregious errors made early on.
Without the disgraceful behaviour and errors in the early stages of the
disaster, the need for clear up would almost certainly be a very great
I knew very early on, from simple research, that the oil was unlikely
to stay in the wreck. The Spanish state and the EU should most certainly
have had far better advice than mine on which to forecast that the oil
was extremely unlikely to solidify.
Are they still attempting to use the captain as a scapegoat? It was the
captain who resisted following the irresponsible orders of the Spanish
government. The Spanish government also acted against the advice of the
I do note they have now stopped attempting to blame everyone else in
14.12.02 At last, the Spanish Prime Minister,
Jose Maria Aznar, has visited the Galicia area. He apologised to the local
people for failing to act effectively or provide adequate resources from
the start of the disaster. About a thousand protestors appeared near by,
with fights breaking out with the officiers of the peace in
riot gear when the demostrators threw eggs at the governmental
procession. There were several arrests and some injuries.
13.12.02 One month after the Prestige
started having problems, the Spanish Prime Minister is now calling the
spill Spains worst ever ecological disaster.
Who is taking action?
The problem starts
About 10,000 Spanish students are joining the many local people cleaning
up the extensive mess of poisonous oil lying in large, thick pancakes
on Galacian beaches. Sports halls have become enormous dormitories for
Three weeks after the spill, the Spanish government has now sent two
naval vessels to the Galicia coast and 700 men to help with cleaning
the rocks between the beaches. A further 500 men have been sent to the
Spanish Basque coast. The plan now is that 7,000 men replace the volunteers.
The full 7,000 men have now been mobilised.
The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, at last admitted today
(11.12.2002) after nearly 4 weeks of flummery, that he and his government
have made serious judgements of error regarding the Prestige
The Prestige was transporting about 77,000
tonnes of heavy fuel oil.
On the 13th November, after the crew of the Prestige had been
airlifted off, the Spanish government arrested the ships captain
for being obstructive. He had refused to start the engines when the
ships difficulties began, in case the forces concerned ruptured
the ship. He had also refused to attach tow ropes, for fear that the
ship would be torn apart.
Both these events feared by the captain later occurred.
On 15 November 2002, two Dutch salvage tugs, towed the vessel to a
holding position some 60 miles clear of the Spanish coast and, following
fresh instructions from the Spanish authorities, then started
moving the tanker to a distance of at least 120 miles offshore.
The Force 9 winds and large seas meant that by the
17th the ship was 65 miles off shore, heading in a southerly direction
where the weather was more favourable, the intention being to
enter a sheltered location suitable for ship-to-ship transfer of the
However, at 15.00 hours on the 17th, the Spanish authorities
requested the convoy to remain at its present location, pending their
But with the Prestige exposed to the violent Atlantic
conditions, on the 18th November, the salvage team had no
option but to head south in search of calmer waters. In a stable
condition, the ship was towed on a southerly track with the salvage
convoy, some 70 miles offshore. The decision to go south was dictated
by the hostile weather to the north. Calmer waters were vital if the
vessels cargo is to be saved.
[Quotations taken from the website news reports of the salvage company, Smit. Link no longer available.]
So the Spanish government first punish the Prestiges
captain for doing his best to prevent a disaster, then order the salvage
tugs to take the ship in a direction where it would be exposed
to the violent Atlantic conditions. We know the result.
of the Commons in action
Other ships are taking advantage of this spillage to clean their fuel
tanks in the wild, thus saving themselves disposal fees.
Their hope is that the oil they throw out will not be noticed in amongst
the other stuff. Trouble is, their light fuel oil looks obviously different
to the dark, thick floating plaques of oil from the Prestige.
There are questions
- Would it not have been better to have allowed the tanker to ground
(as appeared to be the plan of the Prestiges captain),
so that the oil could have been pumped out?
- Would it not have been better to drag the tanker into a port and
then seal off the port?
The answer to these questions appears to be yes.
people suggest forcing the ship out was an error of judgement.
Spain ordered the ship out to sea because it feared a disaster inside
a harbour, but that decision backfired. “The oil would have been controlled”
in a harbour, the salvage company spokesman said. “What happens now
is that hundreds of miles of shore will be polluted.”
- Exactly why did the Spanish authorities order the tanker dragged
out to sea? Was this to remove it out of Spanish waters and thereby
Certainly, if the salvage tugs had been able to follow the orders
that the Spanish authorities gave, the ship would have
been taken out of Spanish territorial waters and perilously close
to Portuguese waters instead.
Rather belatedly, the French and Spanish governments have now placed
tight controls on single-hulled tankers more than 15 years old, and
ships carrying tar, that wish to pass through their exclusive
economic zones, which extend 200 nautical
miles from their coasts.
Now, by simple agreement, the EU has decided to
prohibit all single-hulled ships carrying
heavy fuel oil from entering EU ports from 1 January 2003. This prohibition
will be gradually extended to other noxious cargoes after its formal
ratification in the summer of 2003.
EU environmental commissioner Margot Wallstrom, visiting the
affected northwestern coastline[of Spain], offered Friday [06.12.02]
to send foreign experts to the area. I would like the Spanish
government to accept a team of experts to look at the effects both in
the mid- and the long-term of the accident, and we also offer to make
an environmental study, Wallstrom told reporters after visiting
a bird rescue center. What has happened is a criminal act and
the guilty ones should assume their responsability [sic.], those who
pollute should have to pay, she said.
Meanwhile, the Unites States is providing the example of how oil-tankers
should be controlled. Soon no single-hulled ships may enter US waters,
while tankers allowed to enter US ports must provide a certificate that
any pollution caused will be paid for. Any poorly maintained ships have
points deducted, in a similar fashion to the deduction of driving licence
points; with a possible eventual result that the ship is banned. Thus,
now very few problem vessels now enter US waters.
politics of irresponsibility (Jan 2003)
latest reports: January 2003
debacle, part 2 November & December 2002
ecological oil mess (Nov. 2002)
oil reserves and oil-based fuel development
information and data
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