The BP Spill: Learning from Spain's 2002 Disaster

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Miguel Vidal / Reuters / Corbis

Soldiers clean up fuel oil spilled from the Prestige oil tanker near the town of Muxía on Spain's devastated northwestern Atlantic coast on Jan. 27, 2003

In Muxía, they say black stains still occasionally emerge on the white sands of the local beach. But otherwise, nearly eight years after the Prestige tanker broke apart off the coast of this town in northwestern Spain, spilling 66,000 tons of oil, there are few visible signs of damage. Aquatic species have recovered, and the fears of economic collapse in this fishing town dissipated long ago. What remains instead, say those who lived through the disaster, is the memory of their own power.

As an estimated 40,000 barrels of oil continue to gush daily into the Gulf of Mexico, BP's Deep Horizon spill threatens to pose exponentially graver problems than the Prestige ever did. But in Muxía, which was ground zero for the worst environmental disaster in Spain's history, the townspeople can't help noticing the similarities. "I feel for all those people in the Gulf, because I know what they're going to go through," says Nacho Castro, manager of Muxía's fishermen's association. "It's like living through a war."

In the Prestige's case, that war began with an indecisiveness sure to sound familiar to any Gulf Coast resident. When on Nov. 13, 2002, the Prestige, a Greek-owned ship flying under a Bahamian flag, sprang a leak in its hull after being caught in a storm off the coast of the Galicia region, the governments of Spain, France and Portugal all refused to allow the ship to go to harbor. Instead, Spanish authorities eventually ordered the tanker towed further out to sea, where it split in half and sank. The crew was rescued, but by then thick globs of oil had begun to wash ashore, coating fish and birds as well as the area's rocky beaches.

"I knew immediately that something had happened because I could smell the oil from my house," recalls fisherman José Ramón Vilela. "In that moment, I thought our whole way of life was going to disappear." Six days after the accident, the government banned fishing in the area, a potentially devastating blow to a region that supplies 40% of Spain's total catch. The environmental damage was no less dramatic: the WWF estimates that 250,000 aquatic birds were killed and the populations of a number of marine species, such as octopuses and goose barnacles, were greatly diminished in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

But something extraordinary happened in the wake of the accident. Outraged by the authorities' attempts to downplay the extent of the catastrophe (which would eventually affect 620 miles of coastline), Muxía and other towns began to fight back. Castro, the fishermen's association manager, and other town leaders wrote to the media and to people at universities across the country, asking for help. "It was a chain reaction," Castro recalls. "People forwarded the messages and within days we had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers showing up to clean the beaches."

Over the course of the next nine months, more than 100,000 volunteers from all over Spain traveled to the affected zones to don protective clothes and spend all day scraping oil into buckets for removal from the beaches. The massive, spontaneous response forced the government's hand, and the army was eventually sent in to transport volunteers and carry out the more technically challenging parts of the cleanup.

Francisco Graña, spokesman for the Association for the Ecological Defense of Galicia (ADEGA), was one of the volunteers. He left his home and job in A Coruña and spent a month cleaning oil in Muxía. "It was hard, boring, frustrating work. You would spend hours clearing a beach of every glob of oil only to have more wash up the next day," he recalls. "But it was also very gratifying. Townspeople would thank you or bring you food. You felt like you were making a difference." From the water, local fishermen also helped. "We would take our boats out and encircle an oil slick," says Vilela. "Then we'd scoop out the fuel. I did that for 11 months."

These diverse efforts soon coalesced into an informal association called Nunca Máis — "Never Again" in the Galician language — that not only organized the volunteer effort, but also became politically active. As a result of Nunca Máis' demands, for example, single-hulled tankers like the Prestige are now prohibited in European Union waters. "It was a remarkable social movement," says Felix Porto, today mayor of Muxía. "I'm convinced that if it was not for that, we'd still be suffering the effects of the Prestige today."

In fact, eight years later those effects appear to be negligible. Because the fishing industry successfully lobbied for substantial subsidies from the state, the local economy did not suffer unduly. And the long-term environmental effects have also been far less severe than feared. Six months after the accident, University of A Coruña biologist Juan Freire led an investigation that found reduced reproduction among several species of birds and marine life, an indication of contamination. But now, he says, "They've recovered. No species disappeared, and the affected ones are back to normal levels."

The WWF warns that since the worst effects of contamination are cumulative, it is too soon to judge the Prestige's environmental impact. But Vitorio Barrientos, captain of several Muxía fishing boats, is convinced no long-term damage has been done. "If anything, the accident has improved things because the fishing ban allowed stocks to recover," he says. "Before the Prestige, there was almost no hake left and now we're catching tons."

Still, no one in Muxía remembers the Prestige with anything less than horror, which is why locals watch the Gulf disaster with special sympathy. Their tactical advice varies according to their station — manager Castro believes the U.S. Army should run the cleanup, while boat captain Barrientos urges his Louisiana counterparts to demand that BP put a lot of money on the table — but almost everyone stresses the power that ordinary citizens can wield. "Come together and pressure the authorities," says ADEGA spokesman Graña. "They can't ignore you if you're all down there together on the sand."