Is Gibraltar an Environmental Disaster Waiting to Happen?

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Bates Littlehales / National Geographic / Getty Images

Aerial view of harbor, bay, rocky peninsula, and surrounding seas; Gibraltar.

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

(BAY OF GIBRALTAR) — On the east side, one can see the Rock of Gibraltar, a massive limestone block whose white cliffs rise up to more than 400 meters above the sea. To the west is the Spanish town of Algeciras. In between, some 30 oil tankers and ocean liners are lined up side by side in a stretch of water that is barely seven kilometres (four miles) wide.

The ships are waiting to be refueled in the anchoring area. Located at the very end of the straits that connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the Bay of Gibraltar is Europe's number one oil transfer port. More than 110,000 vessels per year pass through this port, which enjoys a privileged tax regime and does not charge a fuel tax. Ships that come to refuel can also save money on docking fees.

But while shipping companies may see the area as a fiscal paradise, environmental groups say the Bay of Gibraltar is an ecological nightmare — a toxic time bomb that is ready to explode.

A few yards away from this British territory, the huge oil tanker Jacques-Jacob is sending thousands of gallons of fuel down a pipe that runs along its hull, stretches over the water and leads into the tanks of the barge that it's refueling. Both ships, moored at sea, float close to each other, separated only by a buoy. A wrong move could easily provoke an oil spill.

Each day, dozens of ships make the same tricky maneuver, known as "bunkering." In Spanish territory, barges refuel on land. But in Gibraltar, three large floating gas pumps remain permanently in the bay because of a lack of space to stock fuel tanks. These pumps are approved by the UK but forbidden in Spain.

Alfonso Marquina, a local sea captain, looks on disapprovingly. "The risks are too high," he says. Each ship, Marquina points out, carries roughly 100,000 tons of oil.

"In 2010, a storm broke out that sent one of the ships off course during 48 hours. In its storage rooms, there was 80,000 tons of oil," says Antonio Muñoz, member of an environmental organization called Verdemar which decided to raise the issue with the European Parliament.

Gallons of "minor" pollution

So far this year, the Algeciras-La Linea port authorities have already reported four accidents. In January, some 1,250 gallons of oil leaked into the sea when the tank of a ship overflowed while being refueled. And in June, another ship leaked about 75 gallons of coolant. Smaller leaks — a few gallons of oil here and there — are routine and tend to go unreported.

These accidents cause "minor" pollution, according to authorities in Gibraltar. Critics, however, say the routine leaks and splashes happen so often that in the long run they could cause more harm to the seabed than do big oil spills. This argument was defended in a thesis, introduced in 2007 at the University of Cadiz by Carmen Moral Caselles, a marine scientist.

"In 2006, four years after the Prestige oil spill, off the cost of Galicia, the deterioration of sediments in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park ended. Here, in the Bay of Gibraltar, the coastal sediments are significantly more damaged because the bay suffers seriously from industrial discharge and bunkering activities," her research concludes.

On the nearby Punta de San Garcia, a point in Spain's beautiful El Estretcho Natural Park, pebbles are blackened from a fire that broke out two months ago in one of the oil tanks in Gibraltar. According to Tony Davis, Gibraltar's director of maritime affairs, "nearly 100 tons of oil were poured in the sea. However, 90% of it stayed in the containment barriers and the remaining 10% were quickly mopped up."

Residents in Algeciras, where the shores were covered in oil, had a very different take on the accident. "Our ship for environmental preservation managed to recover 10,560 gallons of oil, even though the Gibraltar authorities claim the leak was 10 times smaller," says Alfonso Marquina. An investigation into the June spill is currently underway.

Sara del Rio of Greenpeace in Spain says the habitual finger pointing by Algeciras and Gibraltar does little to solve the environmental problems affecting both. "Every time there is an accident, the Algeciras and the Gibraltar authorities only blame each other," she says. "Eventually, the pollution issue itself becomes less important to them." Polluters, in other words, are benefiting directly from the historic tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, which does not recognize the UK's sovereignty claim to part of the bay.

The ships aren't the only ones to blame. Both Gibraltar and Algeciras dump wastewater directly into the sea. On the beach of Puente Mayorga, a stretch of sand punctuated by pipes belonging to an oil refinery, oil pellets stuck to swimmers' feet. Here, local industries dump huge amounts of chloride, fluoride, nitrogen, phosphorus, lead, arsenic, and other chemicals into the bay.

Juan Manuel Sanchez, an amateur fisherman, is fed up with the obvious pollution. "This bay has become the toilet of Europe," he says matter of factly. The smell in the Saladillo marina, where Sanchez moors his boat, is indeed disgusting.

Juan Antonio Carrasco of the Association for the Defense and Study of Nature, a local environmental group, says only the ocean currents save the bay from being even more inundated with toxins. Water currents carry pollution out towards the straights, out of sight and out of mind — but directly into an ecosystem teeming with dolphins, whales, orcas and migratory birds.

Read the original story in French

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