The Bay of Biscay, between northern Spain and western France is a small, roughly square-edged sea, open to the Atlantic to the west. To English travellers it is best known for the infamous ‘Biscay Belly’ which often afflicts them on the long ferry ride to northern Spain - still the cheapest way of getting there. Deep ocean currents, meeting the steep continental shelf which lies beneath the bay, cause turbulence. And apart from turning English tourists a funny colour, these currents serve other, more serious purposes.
Having raked their way eastwards across the floor of the North Atlantic, the currents are rich in soluble minerals picked up en route. These minerals also rise abruptly to the surface and the result is a sea rich in plankton and other microfauna, teeming with everything that feeds on them in turn, from sprats and squid to tuna and dolphins. It is visited by blue and sperm whales.
This is by way of offering some picture of what the Prestige sank into on 19 November last, with 60,000 tonnes of oil on board. The single-hull vessel sank in three kilometres of water some 260 kilometres west of Finsterra on its way from Estonia to Singapore. The same currents which drive this ecosystem were now steadily loaded with heavy fuel-oil of a kind generally used in the power stations of the developing world - containing high levels of benzene, sulphur and toluene. Vomiting and faintness were reported among those who tried to work without masks when cleaning up the beaches.
Initial reaction to the accident was grotesque in ways both expected and unexpected. Other shipping in the area, for example, took advantage of the chaos to wash out their own fuel tanks with sea water. Experts reported that several beaches were affected by oil that could not have come from the Prestige.
Shoals of journalists were of course quickly on the scene, cameras or microphones at the ready, hunting down oiled gannets or unemployed fisherpeople, or grumbling about the scarcity of press conferences. Local columnists thundered against the failures of central government in Madrid.
Madrid’s response was certainly puzzling. They began by blaming the British Government - the ship had been due to call in at Gibraltar on its way east. This did not, however, play nearly as well with the domestic audience as had been hoped. Swiftly there was a change of tack: Madrid denied that serious pollution was imminent, even as 450 kilometres of coastline went black. Next up: no further fuel would escape from the wreck because the sea temperature at that depth would solidify it. Wrong again. It was a pitiful performance.
For three weeks it was left to environmentalist organizations to co-ordinate the clean-up while Madrid went on issuing its bizarre press releases. Both Greenpeace and the salvage company brought in to advise urged that either the vessel’s cargo be transferred to another ship at sea or that it be towed into a port, sealed off with floating barriers and then have its cargo pumped out there.
Instead it was ordered to make for open sea as quickly as possible, in Force 6-7 gales, with a damaged hull. It broke up and sank in six days. To be fair, Madrid was merely adapting to its own use a belief already popular with several European governments: if the bottom of the North Atlantic is good enough for nuclear waste and obsolete munitions, it is good enough for oil-tankers.
It has been environmentalists, too, who have addressed the implications which Madrid doesn’t dare to address. A spill of roughly similar proportions to this one occurred exactly 10 years ago off the same coastline. That ship, the Aegean Sea - owned by the very same Greek family - caught fire and exploded, blackening the sky above Corunna. Pools of oil from that wreck were still soiling fishermen’s nets in the summer of 2002.
That much is well known. But its implications have not been so well explored. Sebastian Losada, charged with the ocean campaigning of Greenpeace and speaking to Irish radio at the start of the crisis, observed : ‘Our experience is that there is always this intense media interest, but it dies away very quickly.’
He was speaking from long experience. In fact no considered response to this spill is possible without an understanding of the wider region’s history and geography.
The Straits of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel - through which the Prestige had just passed - are 35 kilometres across and the world’s busiest shipping-lane. At the western approaches to these straits are three regions with histories strangely, even mythologically, intertwined - Cornwall in southwest England, Brittany in northwestern France and Galicia in northwestern Spain, scene of the current disaster.
Because deep down the ‘developed’ world has accepted these spills. They are the unfortunate consequences of a way of life we have not the slightest intention of abandoning
Geologically, all three are granite and each of them has been rich in mineral deposits now largely exhausted. There was mass migration to the New World from all of them. Each is remote from its respective capital city, with a history of defiance towards it, and each is economically run-down, heavily reliant on fishing and tourism. And if their rocky coasts were always notorious, the advent of the oil tanker has added one more thread to what connects the three provinces.
The first of the ‘great’ oil-spills occurred here with the wrecking of the Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967, pulled off course by those eastward currents I mentioned earlier. In response, two international conventions on ocean pollution were signed, in 1973 and 1974. In 1978 the Amoco Cadiz lost power during a gale off the coast of Brittany and foundered. Off Galicia there have in fact been four spills in the last 26 years, that of 1992 being merely the one before this. In 1999 came the Erika - Brittany again.
Granite coasts, frequent gales and proximity to the Channel have made of this area a test-bed. It is situated, you might say, at the cutting edge of marine pollution.
And it is this longer perspective, the one which matters, that environmentalists understand best. Governments can tighten up laws (and enforce them, hopefully), journalists can file their scrupulously ‘accurate’ reports and run along home. But all the evidence from this part of the world is that, necessary and worthy as these activities may be, they don’t stop spills happening.
It is environmentalists who are best informed about what happens after the fuss dies down. Research at West Falmouth, in Massachussetts, has shown that heavy fuel-oil - like that on board the Prestige - spilled off-shore there in 1968, ‘is likely to remain indefinitely’ in coastal sediments. Studies on the local ecosystem and local communities after the Exxon Valdez spill (Alaska, 1989) tell a similar story. The US Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which banned single-hulled tankers from US waters, has broadly succeeded. Yet in 1994 a federal jury ordered Exxon to pay $5.3 billion in compensation to the 40,000 people affected. The company simply refused.
It was Finnish environmentalists who calculated in 1994 that some 20 million tonnes of Russian oil were passing through the Gulf of Finland each year in tankers. They have watched as that figure rose to 60 million tonnes in 2002. This is of course contested by the industry itself. A third of the ships chartered by Russian oil companies to sail out of ports on the Baltic and Black Seas are, like the Prestige, more than 20 years old and of single-hull construction, according to the Maritime Intelligence Unit of Lloyds of London.
Russia is the world’s second-largest exporter of the ‘black gold’. National output has risen by 30 per cent over the past three years. Its larger companies are transforming Cold War navy bases on the Arctic and Baltic Seas (Murmansk, Primorsk) into ‘specialist’ facilities for oil exportation. ‘Firmness in the face of terror’ isn’t the only thing that unites the American and Russian political establishments.
All the signs are, then, that more and more vessels carrying petroleum will be frequenting these waters in coming years. EU legislation will be tested soon enough. Whether the EU is serious does not crucially depend on officials, though. Actually, it depends on us.
You don’t think I’m talking to you? Perhaps not. But after five major spills in the approaches to the Channel, this latest probably the worst, I think we can begin to discern a pattern: that the media flurry, our own ‘indignation’, the heroic venturings of politicians to such remote territories outside the holiday season, the noisiness of all that and the silence of the ship-owner, the invisibility of the oil-company, the evasions of ‘Crown Resources’, are not contradictory, as they might seem at first sight.
Because deep down the ‘developed’ world has accepted these spills. They are the unfortunate consequences of a way of life we have not the slightest intention of abandoning. So we make a noise, fiddle with laws - but not so that Exxon has to obey them. We send out a frigate or two for well-publicized ‘interceptions’ of suspect vessels and, yes, write long articles - to conceal from ourselves our own complicity. We get over it quicker this way.
Don’t take my word for it. You can test yourself. There’s a website - www.marinergroup.com/oil-spill-history.htm- offering a list of every major spill there’s ever been. See how few you remember. The system we have unconsciously devised for forgetting these episodes works extremely well.
If as seems the case we inhabit a world run to a significant degree by oil interests, let us at least see the commodity they trade in for what it is. It is not a pristine, odourless abstraction traded on financial markets, wafting pure profit hither and thither about the planet. It is, rather, transported across some of the world’s most treacherous waters in ageing vessels, chartered on behalf of oil companies by entities themselves operating at the very limits of international law.
‘Heavy fuel-oil’ - as you will be able to verify without any trouble in Galicia in the months perhaps years to come - is black and viscous with a consistency between that of congealed chicken fat and axle grease. Affected beaches stink, so that without a mask you feel nauseous after 20 minutes. In one village, Muxia, a large slick came ashore during a violent storm. Fuel oil was splattered all over a public square, coating pavements, benches, flowerbeds. Gobs of it were dribbling very slowly down anything that stood upright - garden fences, lamp-posts, a children’s swing. It looked as if a crowd of delinquents had somehow got hold of buckets full of the stuff and gone on the rampage. You half expected to see ‘Real Madrid Mierda’ smeared on a wall round the next corner. In the context of a built-up area it looks exactly like vandalism.
Which, of course, it is.