Ship Wrecked

A Houston firm certified the oil tanker Prestige as good to go. It broke apart in the Atlantic, causing the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

The Spanish government sent boats to vacuum the clumps of crude from the waters off A Coruña, but they were no match for the five-foot waves. That was when Dopico realized that the only hope for the town's fishermen was to net the oil themselves. He organized a flotilla of fishing boats that scouted the coast for incoming oil slicks and scooped up the black goo with low-tech tools shaped like tennis rackets. "Simply with poles and sacks we cleaned more than the ships with their super-suckers and super-rigs," he said, "and we demonstrated how you combat an oil spill."

The cooperation between the fishermen of A Coruña and those beyond helped spark a new sense of solidarity throughout Galicia and a volatile indignation. Some of this sentiment derived from Spain's budding environmental movement, which coined a phrase to describe the catastrophe: ecological genocide. Yet as understanding of the consequences of the spill deepened, so did a collective sense of history, and a conviction grew that after so many oil spills, this must be the last. In the months following the disaster, more than 200 organizations joined a new alliance founded in the oil-drenched Galician town of Vigo a day after the Prestige sank. The group was simply called Nunca Mais! ("Never Again!").

The protests launched by Nunca Mais! against Spain's slow response to the spill were so large that they shed doubt on the political future of the government's prime minister, Jose Maria Anzar. A few days after the shipwreck, more than 100,000 people protested in Santiago de Compostela -- more than the town's entire population. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of demonstrators clogged the streets in towns from Pontevedra to Madrid. They painted their faces with black tears, carried reproductions of oil-drenched birds or wore the apocalyptic-looking masks donned by cleanup workers. When Anzar visited A Coruña, hundreds of people shouted slogans at him such as "Anzar, out of Galicia!" and "Resignation!"

The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
AP/Armando Franca
The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
Aid workers spent months cleaning up Spanish beaches. The European Union pegged cleanup costs for the region at $5 billion.
Dino Fraccia
Aid workers spent months cleaning up Spanish beaches. The European Union pegged cleanup costs for the region at $5 billion.

Yet in recent months the protests have faded. Spain and France banned single-hull tankers from carrying heavy oil in their waters. The European Union pledged to crack down on classification societies. And the Spanish government is building its case against ABS. But many fishermen feel no solidarity with the hand-wringing masses. Decades of broken promises have bred a bitter resilience. "We are a special caste that knows how to turn our guts into our hearts when we have to," Dopico said. "This is what the world has to understand."

It was thus that Dopico resolved to begin fishing again last month. He set off before sunrise over the tired waves and cast his 2,000 hooks into the sea. All day his crew hauled up sea snakes. The six-month ban on fishing had produced a bonanza of marine life. But the next week the catch was smaller. And the next week smaller still. Until a third of the hooks came up gleaming and empty. "This damned accident was caused by the avarice of the people," he said, "simply the avarice of the people." And reeling in that greed may well take more than 2,000 hooks and the briefs of 2,000 lawyers.

Because when the water turns blue, the people forget.

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