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The accident

On Wednesday 13 November 2002, the single-hulled oil tanker Prestige, flying the Bahamas flag, sent a distress call offshore in the region of Cape finisterre (Galicia, Spain). The tanker, carrying 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil loaded in St Petersburg (Russia) and Ventspils (Latvia), was heading to Singapore via Gibraltar. The vessel developed a reported 30 degree starboard list whilst on passage in heavy seas and strong winds and hence requested partial evacuation of the crew.

Twenty-four of the twenty-seven crew members were evacuated by helicopter while the captain, the first mate and the chief mechanic stayed onboard. The engine was damaged and the ship went out of control and drifted according to the weather conditions. Aerial observation revealed a fuel leak at sea.

The Prestige sinking (Source: BSAM/Douanes françaises)

All night long, the tug boats Ria de Vigo, Alonso de Chaves, Charuca Silveira and Ibaizabal I from SASEMAR (Sociedad de Salvamento y Seguridad Maritima), the Spanish organization in charge of sea rescue and pollution control, tried to take the oil tanker in tow.

The emergency towing system of the ship didn’t work and the different attempts failed. In the end, the Prestige was taken in tow by a ship from Smit Salvage on 14 November. It was towed to the north-northwest all day, and then to the south. On the 15th, it was torn over 35 metres on the right side. On the 16th, its towing was turned to the south-west to avoid the Portuguese waters. On the 19th at 9 am, the vessel broke in two, coordinates 42°15N and 12°08W, about 130 nautical miles off the Spanish coasts, west-southwest of Cape Finisterre. At 12 pm, the stern part of the Prestige sank into 3500 metres of water. The bow part followed at about 4 pm.

Map showing movements of the Prestige (Source: French customs)
(Click to enlarge)

One of the characteristics of this spill was the weathering process of the oil that remained out at sea for a considerable period of time. This spill was "unique" in many respects, first with regard to drift, as it was really the very first time that a spill managed to contaminate 6 countries, and weathering, not to mention the highly significant effect of the slick break-up process and how that had an effect on the choice of response measures and techniques off shore and then inevitably on shore.

The offending oil was tracked throughout the entire time it was drifting in and around the Bay of Biscay and the westernmost reaches of the English Channel, thanks to French and Spanish floating buoys and ship-based and aerial data that was fed into various slick drift forecast models. The main slick spilt up into so many smaller ones on account of the wind and current regimes prevailing in the area that the oil drifted seemingly forever before eventually landing on the beaches in France and even then only after a period of steady westerly winds.

Name: Prestige

Date: 13 November 2002

Location: Spain

Accident area: Off Cape Finisterre, Galicia

Cause of spill: damage

Quantity transported: 77,000 tonnes

Type of pollutant: heavy fuel oil (n°2, M100)

Quantity spilled: 64,000 tonnes

Ship type: oil tanker

Details on type: single hull

Built date: 1976

Shipyard: Hitachi Zosen-Maizuru Works, Maizuru (Japan)

Length: 243.5 m

Draught: 14 m 

Flag: Bahamas

Owner: Mare Shipping Inc. (Liberia)

Manager: Universe Maritime Ltd (Greece)

Classification society: American Bureau of Shipping

P&I Club: London Steamship Association

Legal proceedings

The court case began on 16 October in A Coruña (Spain). A few figures: 1,500 claimants forming 55 civil parties, 300,000 pages of documents, 133 witnesses, around 100 experts, 4 main defendants: the Greek captain of the oil tanker, the first mate, the chief engineer and the former head of the Spanish merchant navy. Some of them risk up to a 12-year prison sentence for damage to the environment and to a protected natural area. The judges sought to assign responsibility to the Spanish administration.

In France, 17 coastal communes in the Landes area affected by the pollution joined forces to form a civil party. The Spanish state, unlike France, does not recognise environmental damages and many French victims could therefore not make claims. The claimants called for the repair of non-economic losses. In this respect, they claimed €2.8 million for Les Landes, €3.4 for Vendée and €1 million for Brittany.

Two days after it opened, the case was adjourned until 13 November 2013. This request, from defence lawyers who disputed the evidence and expertise presented, was accepted by the judge.

See also


Last update: 08/11/12

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