How Bad Will the Spanish Oil Spill Get?
By Chris Dixon,
One World Editor
the worst over, or yet to come in the saga of the Spanish oil tanker disaster?
This seems to depend on whether or not the bulk of the dirty heating oil the
Prestige was carrying does as scientists would like. It is hoped that the oil
will remain in the ship’s tanks and congeal into a waxy mass that stays 11,000
feet down, at the bottom of the very cold ocean. If this happens, many of the
22 million gallons will never reach shore.
reports seem to show that this scenario may not come to pass — at least not
entirely. Large amounts of oil are still appearing on the surface of an increasingly
stormy north Atlantic and heading towards shores of Spain and Portugal. “It
looks like this could be far worse than the Erika,” said Gilles Asenjo, president
of Surfrider Europe.
The Erika was a
tanker that lost about 3 million gallons of crude off the coast of Brittany,
France in 1999. There it polluted about 250 miles of coastline. The Prestige
was carrying about 22 million gallons when it sank. According to Asenjo, the
ironically named ship was an accident waiting to happen. “She was a ship flagged
in the Bahamas, registered in Liberia (an anarchic African country) and owned
by the Greeks,” he said, “she was subject to very few inspection rules and was
probably weakened and rusty just like the Erika.” Indeed, French president Jaques
Chirac called the Prestige a “garbage” ship whose very existence seemed to be
based on the idea of avoiding European safety and environmental regulations.
According to Surfrider’s
Asenjo, the captain of the ship initially reported the damage to be far less
than it actually was, and this may have led to the decision to tow the ship
a hundred fifty miles offshore rather than attempting to get it into a safe
harbor where it could be pumped out. Regardless of the decision, a great deal
of oil was destined to foul the Spanish coast, but perhaps far less would have
leaked had the ship been able to get to calmer waters.
A lack of calmer
waters of course, is what caused the biggest problem once the Prestige was towed
well offshore. There, her weakened hull couldn’t stand up the battering of the
wintertime North Atlantic and she split in two.
According to Surfline’s
Sean Collins, the place where she sank could not be much worse given an impending
storm and ocean currents in the area. Collins said that the location of the
sinking could create a catastrophic condition should oil continue rising to
the surface. This is because the wind-driven ocean currents branch here, with
one stream flowing east to west along the north coast of Spain toward France,
and a strong north-south current that flows along the coast of Portugal. With
a tremendous storm now approaching the European coast, twice as much oil as
was in the Exxon Valdez could affect both stretches of coast, and the prime
surf and fishing grounds found here. “You would hope that the ship sank far
enough out to sea that it won’t affect the north coast of Spain,” Collins said,
“but it’s tough to tell.”
Principle in the
equation is a huge approaching gale. “They had 25 to 30 foot seas in last Friday’s
storm,” he said, “but this next storm is substantially bigger. I’d rate this
one an 8 out of ten. You could say it’s twice as big”
According to Collins,
the storm will begin with 12 to 18 hours of southerly winds in the 35-40 knot
range. These south winds may blow long enough to take a portion of the oil northward
and into the current that would carry it along Spain’s north coast.
“After that,” he
said, “you’ve got a northwesterly gale blowing through on Wednesday with winds
in the 55-65 knot range. The seas will build tomorrow and then by Thursday the
surf along the coast here will be 40 to 45 feet high.”
This, he says,
would then push the oil southward to Portugal.” You have a major swell coming
in. Then add to that 30 to 40 knots of west wind, and it could really push this
oil onto land.”
This, of course,
would only enhance what is already a disaster on a scale most California surfers
can scarcely imagine. Despite the fact that many billions of gallons of crude
pass along our shores each year, only a few comparatively minor spills have
blackened California’s shores. It’s the Euros who have truly suffered.
Besides the Erika,
numerous monster spills have occurred in Europe in the last decade. In 1993,
the Brear released 26 million gallons off the Shetland Islands, in 1992 the
Aegean Sea lost 22 million gallons off northwestern Spain and in 1996 the Sea
Empress spilled 18 million gallons off Wales in 1996″
It could affect so much
coast,” said Asenjo, “from Portugal to the Spanish coast that includes breaks
like Mundaka and maybe as far as France.” Not only will surfers be affected,
so will countless sea creatures, coastal residents and fishermen whose livelihoods
are now shattered.
What remains to
be seen is just how bad it will get.