13 November 2002: The biggest environmental disaster in Spain's history

Volunteers help clean an oil-covered beach in Galicia in 2002.
Volunteers help clean an oil-covered beach in Galicia in 2002. / AP
  • The Prestige oil tanker suffered damage off the coast of Galicia, leaking more than 50,000 tonnes of crude oil, much of which ended up on the beaches

One of the greatest oil spills in Europe occurred off the Spanish coast 18 years ago. In November 2002, the tanker 'Prestige', with 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil on board, was heading from the Latvian port of Ventspils to Singapore via Gibraltar.

On 13 November, the Prestige suffered an accident just 46 kilometres off the coast of Galicia. During a heavy storm, the 26-year-old structurally deficient oil tanker suffered a 15-metre crack on the starboard side. French, Portuguese, and Spanish governments refused to allow the ship to dock. For several days the tanker drifted, leaking oil. There was no loss of life as the crew were evacuated with rescue helicopters.

Eventually, the ship broke in two, by then in Portuguese waters, and sank only about 210 kilometres from the Spanish coast. It is believed that over 50,000 tonnes of crude oil were released into the water. More than 1,300 kilometres of coastline, mainly in the region of Galicia, were polluted. As a consequence, the Galician government had to suspend offshore fishing for six months. The catastrophe is thought to have caused the death of some 250,000 birds.

The Prestige oil spill was the most serious environmental accident that has ever occurred in Spanish waters. It caused short-term losses in all affected economic sectors and involved huge cleaning and recovery costs.

The tanker was owned by a Liberian company, registered in the Bahamas, and was operated by a Greek captain with a Filipino crew. It was classed by the American Bureau of Shipping, but insured by the London P&I Club, a shipowners' mutual known as the London Club.

The British insurer refused to participate in the Spanish proceedings on the basis that the parties should submit arbitration in England, as per the insurance contract. Fifteen years after the catastrophe, London Club was ordered to pay a $1-billion fine over the oil spill.

The ship's Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, who was 67 at the time of the accident, was acquitted by the court. He argued that the ship had been forced to stay out in the ocean like a "floating coffin".

Spain was criticised for the decision not to bring the ship into port after its initial mayday call.