Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Spain's 'Coast of Death' bears evidence of oil spill 8 years later

By Ivan Watson, CNN
  • In November 2002, tanker ship Prestige sank, spilling millions of gallons of oil
  • More than 100,000 volunteers came to help in a clean-up effort costing billions of euros
  • Despite lingering pollution, fishermen say their catch is back to pre-Prestige levels
  • Today, Spain and the European Union restrict the movement of older, single-hulled tankers

Muxía, Spain (CNN) -- Wooden sailboats and steering wheels from ships decorate the cavernous Nosa Senora da Barca, or "Our Lady of the Boat" church. Last week, a small congregation from the neighboring fishing village of Muxia gathered to pray in this stone chapel, which stands 100 feet from where the foaming Atlantic Ocean pounds the rocky coast.

Here, along the stormy Costa da Morta, or Coast of Death, locals are raised with the knowledge that the sea is a capricious neighbor, one that can be as bountiful as it can be dangerous.

But no one prepared these people for the man-made disaster that washed up on their shores nearly eight years ago, when the tanker ship Prestige broke open and sank, releasing millions of gallons of oil.

"It was the worst thing I have ever seen," said Ramon Vilela, a Muxia resident who makes his living harvesting goose barnacles, a valuable local delicacy, off the region's rocky beaches.

"We had a difficult time," said Jose Soneira, a pensioner who lives by the harbor in Muxia. This town on Spain's northwestern coast was considered ground zero during the disaster.

"We couldn't come out here," he said, pointing at the beach. "It was all full of black sludge. Black, black, black. Wherever you put your feet, you had to wear boots and protection."

The Prestige first got into trouble in November 2002, when the Greek-owned ship operating under the flag of the Bahamas sprang a leak after being caught in a storm off Spain's Galician coast. The Spanish government denied the Prestige refuge and ordered the foundering ship to be towed further out to sea.

Several days later, more than 100 miles off the Spanish coast, a roiling storm finally broke the stricken ship in two, sending its shattered hull to the bottom of the ocean and spilling much of its cargo of heavy fuel oil into the water.

Video: Spain remembers 2002 oil spill
Accidents are part of the deal. If we consume oil, we have the risk of oil accidents.
--Professor Felipe Louzan

Millions of gallons of oil began washing up. Locals called it la marea negra, or the black tide.

It was one of the worst oil spills in modern history.

More than 100,000 volunteers traveled to Galicia to help in a clean-up effort that eventually cost Spain and the European Union billions of euros.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the pollution killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds. The oil spill also ground Galicia's multimillion-dollar fishing industry to a halt.

Today, locals point to the rocky beach at Cuña. Despite nearly eight years of wind, surf and rain, thick black tar still clings to the rocks.

Can oil, coastal towns peacefully coexist? Video

Despite lingering pollution, fishermen say their catch is back to pre-Prestige levels.

Juan Diz, 80, had to shut down his fish-drying operation during the worst of the oil spill. He said he wasn't entitled to the compensation of 1,200 euros a month that fishermen received when the government shut down fishing grounds. But today, he is back at work at his secadero, drying fish the old-fashioned way by hanging them outside from a network of wooden beams where the near-constant sea winds dry and cure the oily meat.

"The problem was not just economic, it was ecological and especially a health issue," said Naxo Castro, head of Muxia's fishing cooperative. "Today they are still doing studies on the impact of the contamination on our bodies."

A 2006 study by Spain's University of La Coruna concluded that volunteers working on the oil slick clean-up showed evidence of "an increase in the level of genetic damage in blood cells." Researchers also detected higher levels of heavy metals in these volunteers, similar to tobacco smokers. The study concluded that clean-up crews were provided with inadequate face masks and protective gear to protect them from airborne contaminants.

Other researchers have found evidence of tumors and genetic mutations in some of the shellfish growing along the Galician coast.

In the wake of the Prestige disaster, Spain and the European Union have taken steps to restrict the movement of older, single-hulled tankers from sailing too close to Spanish territorial waters. But maritime experts warn the threat of another oil spill can never be ruled out.

"Accidents are part of the deal. If we consume oil, we have the risk of oil accidents," said Felipe Louzan, a professor at the University of La Coruna's school of maritime studies. He's a former captain with years of experience sailing oil tankers.

He said the Prestige disaster forced the Spanish government to invest in better tugboats and oil-spill containment ships.

Like many of the people who witnessed the Prestige disaster, Louzan had nothing but sympathy for Americans who will now face the spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

"They will need lots of patience," said fisherman Francisco Castro. "And I'd advise them to arm themselves with courage."

"Nothing can stop the black tide," warned Castro. "It's very good what (U.S. President Barack) Obama did, making British Petroleum responsible. ... I think he should mobilize the military so that they use all their technology to deal with the catastrophe."

Castro stood next to the pounding surf, below the Nosa Senora da Barca chapel. He pointed toward a tall stone obelisk erected on a hill above the church, which stands as a monument to the tens of thousands of volunteers who helped during the Prestige oil spill.

"Looking at it eight years later, I feel like I survived a war," Castro said, recalling how the fishing cooperative's offices became the headquarters for months of clean-up operations.

For this Muxia resident, there was a silver lining to the Prestige disaster.

Castro met and fell in love with one of the volunteers who came to Muxia to clean up the beaches. Today, they are happily married and living within site of beaches that were once swamped by the filthy black tide.