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Spanish PM Makes Belated Visit to Region Affected by Oil Spill - 2002-12-14


A month after an oil tanker caused Spain's biggest ecological disaster by spilling tons of oil, the Spanish prime minister has made a long-awaited visit to the region.

Harshly criticized by opposition parties, the press, ecological groups and local residents, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar finally visited the coast of Galicia Saturday.

In the month since the oil tanker Prestige began spilling more than 20 tons of fuel oil off the Galician coast, the prime minister insisted he would not go to Galicia until he had concrete solutions to offer.

Fresh from a European Union summit in Copenhagen, Mr. Aznar was able to announce $265 million worth of EU aid. He also confirmed that King Mohammed VI of Morocco had agreed to open Moroccan waters to Galician fishermen for a period of three months. The important Galician fishing industry was brought to a standstill by the oil spillage.

Mr. Aznar also apologized to the Galician people for the errors his government had committed in handling the crisis. Shamed by the spontaneous appearance of thousands of volunteers from throughout Spain and abroad to help clean up Galicia's shores, the government did not begin deploying army and navy personnel in significant numbers until a week ago.

Greeting the Prime Minister outside the crisis control center in La Coruńa were hundreds of angry protesters calling for his resignation. Among the crowd were some of the workers who had to call off the clean-up operation Saturday because of stormy weather.

Oil continues leaking from the Prestige which broke in two and sank on November 19 after it was towed some 270 kilometers off the Spanish coast with more than 50 tons of oil aboard. The French submarine Nautile has tried to seal one of 14 holes from which the oil is seeping and officials say if the operation succeeds it will try to contain the rest of the leaking tanker.