The Prestige inquiry publishes its opinion

Everyone in Europe knows what happened; now, six years after the super-tanker Prestige sunk off the coast of Galicia, leaving hundreds of miles of oil slick to slime the region’s rocky coast, costing millions of euros in a tremendous cleaning-up operation, the official Inquiry into causes and effect of the accident has published the results of practically six years of arduous investigation. The tragedy that (temporarily) ruined Galicia’s beaches and left hundreds of thousands of seabirds and sea fauna dead took place on 13 November, 2002.

The Inquiry exonerates from all blame the ex-naval director of La Coruña, Ángel del Real, the then Delegado del Gobierno, Arsenio Fernández de Mesa, and the then Minister of Fomento, Francisco Álvarez-Cascos, who agreed with the professionals’ decision to tow the already stricken tanker as far out to sea as possible, avoiding entrance to any Galician port.

Court No. 1 at Corcubión considers the investigation concluded, and has withdrawn the accusation of negligence against the principal actors in the drama. The same Court dissociates the then government of José María Aznar of any blame for the incident, or culpability in its aftermath. It will be remembered that a special ‘anguished protest’ group called ‘Nunca Máis’ was set up to attack the then government from every angle, egged on inexorably by the chief party of the Opposition in Parliament, the PSOE. The leader of the opposition, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said, “nothing functioned as it should, there was a total lack of diligence, and no communication between departments. It seems impossible that none of the ministers responsible for the accident (sic) have resigned”. Mr José Blanco, also of the PSOE, said that “the Aznar government acted with incompetence, negligence and lack of coordination . . .” and added that the phrase ‘criminal negligence’ might well be used. The action group Nunca Máis said that José Luis López-Sors (ex-director of the Merchant Marine) had acted negligently, thus causing the tragedy.

The fact is that 77,000 tons of crude were emptied into the Atlantic from a sinking super-tanker, and the Enquiry’s difficult job was to find out who to blame. The PSOE found it easy to blame ministers and other persons of elevated position, because they are always easy targets. If a rotten tree is blown over by a hurricane, knocking down a house, always blame the Ministry of Agriculture. If the notoriously dangerous seas off the coast of Galicia catch a possibly sleepy ship’s captain unawares, and a cargo of nearly one hundred tons of crude shifts, it is naturally the Minister of Development’s fault, especially if he was spending the weekend as a guest in someone else’s house at the time. Obviously, he should have known that a tanker passing the Galician coast at that moment was going to get into difficulties.

Judge Carmen Veiras Suárez reached the conclusion that the decision to tow the crippled giant away from the coasts had been ‘prudent and reasonable’. Experts attending the Inquiry had told her that ‘it was the best of the alternatives’. If Prestige had been towed into an important port like Vigo, for example, the eventual damage might have been even worse. Nor, the statement adds, are port authorities obliged to permit access to a port.

If the opinion of experts at the time was correct (as the judge assumes it was) no option was left to the port authorities but to deny access. The statement also points out that when the salvage company appointed by the ship’s owners agreed to take over the situation, according to maritime laws, they did so only if it were agreed to get the tanker to a position 120 miles away from the coast.

Thus the most important environmental legal case in the last decade enters its final phase. Accusations remain held against the ship’s captain, Apostolos Mangouras; his chief engineer, Argyropoulus Nikolaos, and the first officer, Irineo Maloto. They are accused of offences committed against natural resources and the environment; and disobedience. The next move is an actual trial. Meanwhile, anyone who wishes to appeal against the findings of the Inquiry can present it in writing within five days. The action group Nunca Máis, which had been disbanded, has gathered itself together again quickly to appeal. The conclusions of the Inquiry cover 192,311 pages.

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