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Spanish Environmentalists Mark Anniversary of Oil Spill - 2003-11-12

A year ago, a dilapidated oil tanker, the Prestige with nearly 80,000 tons of crude oil in its hold, broke apart off Spain's Atlantic coast and sank, creating the country's worst environmental disaster in history. The Spanish government cleaned up most of the spill, but environmentalists and citizen activists complain the problems remain.

In the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, blue-and-black banners proclaiming "nunca mais" (never again) are still taped on the windows of homes and shops. They belong to the Nunca Mais citizens' group, which was set up a year ago, following the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, less than 200 kilometers off Galicia's coast.

The estimated 63,000 tons of oil that gushed into Spain's coastal waters spread to Portugal and France. There were even reports last month that pellets of hardened crude were found on British beaches. But much of the oil drifted onto Galicia's shores, polluting beaches, killing fish and sinking the region's tourism. Environmentalists estimate up to 300,000 birds died because of the spill - a figure far higher than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

But today, much of Galician life appears to have returned to normal. Fisherman, who have been out of work for months because of a government ban on seafood - are back at sea. Bars and restaurants in this rugged northwestern region are again serving fried squid, mussels and lobsters. Galicia's Fisheries and Maritime affairs commissioner, Enrique Lopez Veiga, says the worst of the Prestige disaster is over.

"We are not pretending the situation is completely and fully over," said Mr. Lopez. "There's still parts of fuel traveling in the sea. Minor. The major has been fragmented. There are remains, which come from time to time to shore."

Commissioner Lopez says robotic divers recently managed to seal the tanker, preventing any further spills. A trial test to pump oil from the sunken tanker also proved successful . The Spanish government hopes to pump out an estimated 14,000 tons of oil remaining in the Prestige's hold next summer, when the Atlantic waters are calmer.

But not everybody agrees the Prestige disaster has passed. A new report by the World Wildlife Fund, claims that several thousand tons of oil are still drifting off shore. The group says the environmental effects from the spill may last for a decade, and cost $6 billion or more. Maria Jose Caballero, oceans campaigner for another environmental group, Greenpeace Spain, agrees the problems are far larger than officials in Galicia or Madrid will admit.

'We know the situation is confusing, because the government is saying the fish, beaches, everything is okay," said the Greenpeace activist. "But this is not what the universities are saying. They are studying the impact on different fish species, both in the coastal and deep sea areas. And they are finding some impacts."

Zelia Garcia, a spokeswoman for Nunca Mais, also believes Galicia's conservative government is underestimating the size of the problem.

"Fisherman don't receive help now. They have a lot of problems with productivity. They have a lot of problems because the consequence of Prestige will be for 10 years," stressed Ms. Garcia. "And it's very complicated to go away from the situation, if we don't have any help from the Spanish government or the government Galicia."

The conservative Popular party of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, which also dominates Galicia's local government, was widely criticized after the Prestige disaster, for bungling the cleanup and minimizing the spill's effect. But today, it's hard to say who is right in the current dispute between environmentalists and government officials.

Commissioner Lopez argues the environmentalists' claims that the Prestige is still leaking oil, and that the fishing industry and the environment will suffer long-term consequences are exaggerated or just untrue. He says the ongoing protests by Nunca Mais are politically motivated, because the group is dominated by members of Galicia's opposition nationalist party, the BNG.

But there is one thing both environmentalists and the Spanish government agree on: That European shipping industry regulations don't go far enough to prevent future oil spills.

Earlier this year, the European Union agreed to phase out single-hulled tankers like the Prestige from the continent's waters by 2010. But that was after Spain, Portugal and France imposed their own immediate, unilateral bans against what they label garbage tankers.

Meanwhile, last month European countries failed to agree on a Spanish-led Initiative to penalize those responsible for the oil spills, including imposing prison terms for the worst offenders. Commissioner Lopez also criticizes the European Union for failing to follow the example of the United States, which now forces oil shipping companies post large bonds before entering North American waters.

"I think we are victims of bad legislation," Mr. Lopez said. "I don't think the European Union has been courageous enough to take the same steps as the United States."

Other problems also remain unresolved. International shipping regulations have yet to establish ownership rules for shady tankers like the Prestige, which flew a Bahamian flag and was operated from Athens by a company registered in Liberia. Meanwhile, the case against the Prestige's Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, is moving slowly through Spanish court. The captain was freed in February on a $3 million bail, but he is not allowed to leave Spain.