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Shipping disaster that Spain forgot

Court ruling on 2002 oil spill that caused damage estimated at $5bn elicits silence from public and apathy from media.
Last modified: 14 Nov 2013 14:56
A volunteer takes a rest as he collects oil from the sunken tanker Prestige in the Vigo Rias [File: AFP]

An oil tanker in a poor state of repair runs into difficulties at sea. The authorities of the nearest country refuse to allow it to come into the port.

Neighbouring countries also make it clear they don't want the tanker anywhere near their shores.

Six days later, the tanker sinks, spilling some 60,000 tonnes of oil into the sea.

Fish and bird populations are destroyed, and more than 1,000 beaches are polluted.

Only an enormous effort by volunteers - who spend months clearing up the mess that a feeble government effort could not contain - prevents an even greater disaster.

The total cost of all this damage as estimated in court? More than $5bn.

This is the true story of the Prestige, which sunk off northwest Spain in November 2002.

Eleven years later, a judge in the Galician city of A Coruna gives a long-awaited judgement as to who was responsible for his country's worst ever environmental disaster.

His verdict: nobody was to blame. Not the Greek captain of the Prestige, and not the Spanish government, which turned the stricken ship away.

Ownership tangle

As for the shadowy ownership of the Prestige - well, good luck trying to untangle it. It flew the flag of the Bahamas, was registered in Liberia by an apparently Greek-owned company, was insured in the UK and certified in the US.

I am told that's how international shipping works.

In the evening, I talk to some people in an A Coruna restaurant and ask them what they think of the verdict.

"Disgusting," they say. "It shows that in Spain the powerful people can get away with anything."

So, why, I ask, were there only some 15 people protesting outside the courtroom, given that the judgement was read out on national television for over an hour, and the gist of the judge's decision was obvious long before his conclusion?

They are silent.

Silence too, from much of the world's media.

Newspapers and broadcasters that dedicated big resources to covering the initial oil spill did not bother reporting this trial, or only did so in the most cursory detail.

How quickly we journalists move on from one disaster to another. How rarely we bother to dig deeper, and hold those in power to account.

How often do we go back to the scene of a catastrophe after the initial drama and assess how effective the official response was, and how well aid was managed?

It is something to think about, in these days when we are all transfixed by a new catastrophe on the other side of the world.