The university and science in the face of the Prestige disaster

On a visit to the town of Muxía, on the Costa da Morte, during the weekend of November 23 and 24, 2002, we noticed a source of the smell of fuel. That same Sunday we decided to suspend the classes of the Higher Graduate in Environmental Engineering at the University of Santiago de Compostela and dedicate them to another task: analyzing the oil spill that for a few days had stained the sea and the coast of Galicia black.

On November 19, 2002, the monohull oil tanker Prestige sank early in the morning after traveling for a week along the Galician coast. The odyssey began on November 13, when the ship’s first distress call was received some 12 miles from the coast. That day another environmental tragedy began to be chewed, almost ten years after the last one produced by another oil tanker, the Aegean Sea, near the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña. And before this, there had already been other collapses:

  • Polycommander oil tanker (1970): sinks in the Vigo estuary.

  • Urquiola oil tanker (1976): sinks at the gates of A Coruña.

  • Oil tanker Andros Patria (1978): suffered a severe accident off Malpica.

  • Casón ship (1987): sinks near the Finisterre lighthouse.

  • Mar Aegean oil tanker (1992): sinks near the Tower of Hercules in A Coruña.

  • Prestige oil tanker (2002): sinks off the Galician coast.

Shipwrecks of ships with chemical or oil products on the Galician coast during the period 1970-2002.
Gumersindo Feijoo / USC, Author provided

The Finisterre maritime corridor is a true shipping highway. In 2019, some 36,000 ships carrying 250 million tons of merchandise passed off the Galician coast, which gives a magnitude of the flow of materials associated with the European consumption model based fundamentally on the linear economy.

The Prestige accident meant a change in the configuration of the Finisterre maritime corridor, becoming a range between 20 and 40 miles, and the extension of the double-hull legislation for oil tankers.

the oil slick

An oil slick is produced by a spill of oil or its derivatives into the sea due to the accident and/or shipwreck of the ships that transport it. These spills seriously harm marine life and fisheries, as well as coastal ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the Prestige was carrying fuel, that is, the heaviest component of petroleum (and, therefore, with a very low biodegradability), made up of residues from crude oil distillation and used in thermal installations or in slow diesel engines.

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Viscosity reduction process or visbreaking which originates the M-100 fuel that the Prestige carried.
Gumersindo Feijoo / USC, Author provided

The ship had a declared cargo of 77,000 tons of M-100 fuel oil. Of these, some 63,000 tons were dumped directly into the sea. Finally, all of this became more than 180,000 tons of waste in its different forms: crude oil, mixed with sand, and mixed with seawater.

The direct and indirect effects of the oil slick caused by the Prestige were established by the courts at around 2,500 million euros, although unfortunately it will be very difficult for the owner or the ship’s insurer to finally obtain that amount.

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Waste collected from the Prestige between November 2002 and December 2004 in Spain, France and from the wreck itself.
Gumersindo Feijoo / USC, Author provided

the white tide

At the university, the week after the sinking, we set aside the usual program and did an analysis of the spill from different perspectives (environmental, economic and social) forming working groups between the students and the teaching staff of the environmental engineering degree.

On Wednesday, November 27, students and teachers participated in the cleaning tasks.

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Photograph taken during the cleaning campaigns.
Gumersindo Feijoo, Author provided

Then began the white tide that would bring volunteers from the five continents to Galicia. Between November 2002 and July 2003, more than 320,000 volunteer actions were carried out, with a maximum participation in the month of January with more than 85,000 volunteers.

In addition, the social awareness of the catastrophe pivoted through the Nunca Máis platform, which crystallized on December 1, 2002 in one of the largest demonstrations held in Galicia. Some 200,000 people attended, approximately 10% of the Galician adult population.

science to the rescue

As with the covid-19 pandemic, science was put at the service of society and trials multiplied to study oil spills at sea from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Thus, different options for the elimination of fuel by systems were analyzed. off site (waste collected and deposited in rafts) as on-site (fuel on beaches and rocks) with physical, chemical and/or biological systems.

The biostimulation of the autochthonous flora and the combination with external biocatalysts were shown to be good options to accelerate the biodegradation of fuel, especially of highly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

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Number of documents with the term ‘oil spill’ in the title, abstract and keywords in different years in the SCOPUS database.
Gumersindo Feijoo / USC, Author provided

Prevention, solidarity and science and technology have proven to be good weapons to face the great challenges of different kinds that humanity has had, has and will have.

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