Death Coast

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On the floor of the north Atlantic, in the frigid depths off Spain's craggy Costa da Morte (Death Coast), sits a time bomb. The Prestige lies in shame, 145 nautical miles off the northwestern state of Galicia, and its remaining cargo — at least 55,000 tons of thick fuel oil — could detonate in days, weeks or months into a great black tide of viscous goo, unleashing one of the worst marine disasters ever. But if King Neptune is kind, the sunken tanker may just sleep, its cargo solidified, having done all the dirty work it will ever do.

Its work so far has been dastardly. Some 400 km of ecologically sensitive Galician shoreline, home to the region's critical fishing industry and a variety of exotic seabirds, are already coated in the gunge that began leaking from the single-hulled Prestige when it foundered in huge waves and gale-force winds on Nov. 13. When the Greek-owned tanker finally broke in two and sank, it took with it the livelihoods of 5,000 people who depend on small-scale fishing in the area. Spanish officials, who have banned fishing from El Ferrol and A Coruna in the north to Cape Finisterre in the south, estimated last week's damages at $42 million and climbing. Now the worry is that fierce storms still churning in the Atlantic will push the spill's other oil slicks toward the shore.

"They call this the Death Coast. It couldn't be more appropriately named," says Juan Antonio Toja, head of the fishermen's cooperative in the village of Laxe. Long a graveyard for ships, the area has now seen three major oil disasters since 1976. Toja's depressed mood matched that of his neighbors, among them the owners of three small boats who had gone out to fish beyond the exclusion zone. There, in the dark, the men were terrified to find themselves surrounded by "a raft of a gluey substance that glistened in the moonlight," says one of the fishermen, Manuel Toja. "It was so thick we felt we were stuck in it." Back in port — with their nets, buoys and lobster traps ruined by oil — their meager catch was rejected by the health authorities.

While waves, winds and oil churn off shore, storms also are raging in government and shipping industry offices on several continents, where politicians and businessmen argue about who is to blame for the demise of the 26-year-old Prestige, which was en route from the Latvian port of Ventspils to Singapore with a cargo of 76,972 tons of Russian fuel oil. "The ultimate story will be why, why, why?" says Stewart Wade, spokesman for the Houston, Texas-based American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which inspected and last certified the tanker as seaworthy in Dubai last May. "This ship never should have sunk, and the spill should have been contained."

The crew's deliberate flooding of empty tanks on one side of the hull to get the ship back in an upright position created far too much stress, says Wade. "After that, the final sinking could be easily predicted. Its death warrant was signed." And the Spanish authorities, he contends, exacerbated the effects of what should have been a minor oil spill by refusing to give the damaged vessel permission to dock in a sheltered area. "It leaked over 290 km of coast instead of in a small bay in which it could have been contained," he says.

ABS, says Wade, has reviewed its records on the Prestige and "can find nothing in the paper trail that would raise any cause for concern." The Rotterdam Harbor Authority's chief inspector, Henk ten Hoope, agrees. In a September 1999 inspection, he found "nothing wrong with the ship's structure," he says. "As far as we were concerned, it was perfectly seaworthy." Shipping sources in Athens — base of the Prestige's registered owners, Mare Shipping Inc., and manager, Universe Maritime Ltd. — call the vessel "a good ship," and add that Captain Apostoulos Mangouras is experienced and had a clean record. (He has been detained in Spain for alleged environmental offenses and failure to cooperate with coastal authorities in a timely fashion.) So why did the Prestige sink? Theories include the extreme weather conditions, a collision with floating debris, structural problems, metal fatigue and miscalculations in the salvage effort. The Dutch salvage firm Smit, which handled the attempted rescue of the ship, is locked in a battle of words with Spain. "We asked to tow the ship to a safe place on the Spanish coast, where we could repair it in calm waters," says a Smit spokesman. "But the Spanish authorities refused." The Spanish say they feared damage would be greater if the leaking vessel — chartered by Swiss-based Crown Resources AG, part of the Russian-owned Alfa Group — was brought closer to shore.

The breakup and sinking of the Prestige — after its 27-man crew was airlifted to safety — has also renewed debate over single-hulled ships. "With a double hull, when a ship is damaged there is an extra layer of skin to prevent the cargo from escaping," notes Unni Einemo of the specialist website Tankerworld. Under a package of E.U. directives approved two years ago, in the wake of the 1999 Erika oil spill off northwestern France, single-hulled vessels are to be phased out by 2015. But oil companies and shippers still use the old vessels because they are cheaper to lease. Last week, E.U. transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio — a Spaniard — called on member states to quickly enact individual bans on single-hulled tankers in European waters.

Efforts to clean up the benighted coast have been hindered by poor weather. The work has rapidly become an onshore mop-up exercise rather than an offshore recovery, partly due to the nature of the oil. With a consistency like that of chewing gum, the oil is stubborn and impervious to dispersants — the first choice in dealing with spills — which break the oil up into small droplets that are further dispersed by the waves. Lacking sufficient floating barriers, local fishermen have been using their own boats and nets — and even telephone poles as booms — to try to prevent the goo from reaching beaches and ports.

Given the nasty weather, many in Galicia can only watch and wait for now, hoping that the wind and wave patterns will soon shift, sparing further damage to wildlife, fisheries and coastline. The Portuguese pray that the black gunk will not reach their shores; environmentalists hope it also will miss Spain's Las Islas Cies national park, the Aquarium Finisterre complex and other areas of great biodiversity. Out at sea, meanwhile, slicks break up and recongeal, changing in size, shape and number, making it difficult to gauge the exact scale of the spillage.

The cleanup will be paid for by the ship's insurers, as well as a fund established in 1992 by the major oil companies to deal with just this kind of accident. While the E.U. has not yet determined how much its contribution to the cleanup will be, fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler promises that Europe will not let Spain's fishermen down.

The villagers, who are being given j30 for each day they are unable to fish, aren't reassured. "We can't predict the long-term damage," says Juan Antonio Toja. "It will probably mean the end for many families." Mending fishing nets with her sister, Nieves Charlín, another Laxe resident, mused that their husbands and brothers "won't be needing these for some time." Worried about making ends meet, Manuel Toja reflected sadly that "Papa NoŽl will not come to visit my daughter this year."