2002 tanker sinking still leaves mark on Spain's north coast

A CORUNA, Spain -- From the boardwalk, Riazor Beach looks great: white sand and blue water. But Oliva Fernandez's morning stroll along the shore leaves her feet fouled with black muck.

She whips out olive oil, this year's must-have lotion at just about any beach in northern Spain. But it's for cleaning, not tanning.

"It's a real nuisance, all thanks to the Prestige," Fernandez said.

She means the oil tanker that dealt Spain the worst environmental catastrophe in its history when it ruptured in a storm on Nov. 13 and spilled 16.8 million gallons -- far more than the 11 million gallons coughed up by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989.

More than nine months later, the Prestige is still leaking 5 gallons a day from its resting place 2.4 miles down in the Atlantic Ocean, the government says.

When the ship went down, thousands of fishermen, workers and volunteers from all over Spain rushed to help with the cleanup and save the rugged coastline of Galicia, Spain's misty green northwestern corner.

Gobs of 'chapapote'

Nine months later the volunteers have gone home and authorities insist the beaches are clean. Most fishing restrictions were lifted in early July, and some Spaniards have even done well out of the compensation the government is paying.

But the effects live on.

Biscuit-sized globs of "chapapote" -- the colloquial word for oil -- wash in with the tides in Galicia and farther east in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque region, all prime vacation destinations.

Altogether, 745 of the 1,064 beaches in the four northern regions of Spain were contaminated, a government commission says, and 40 out of 77 beaches lost their "blue flag" certification as squeaky-clean.

At Riazor Beach here in the Galician city of A Coruna, lifeguards still hand out olive oil and cotton towelettes to 200 bathers on an average day, said Carlos Tourinan at city hall.

Ecologists are furious with the government's handling of the crisis. They say all the beach-cleaning frenzy and media attention go to tourist areas, while rocky coves that few people visit but are brimming with sea life remain caked with oil.

David Sanchez, a spokesman for the government commission handling the crisis, denied authorities ever played it down, noting the crews still scrubbing beaches. "If the government has 4,000 people working on the coasts, it is not minimizing anything," he said in late August.

Along one stretch of Galicia's shore -- called the Coast of Death for its countless shipwrecks -- dozens of people in oil-stained jumpsuits continue to blast oil-coated rocks with hot water.

"It's a tough and endless task," said Maria Mouzo, 45, an unemployed fisherwoman hired for the cleanup job. "Every day we can see for ourselves that the government is lying. The chapapote is still here."

Others work their way along miles of shoreline sifting sand by hand to remove the oil.

Galicia's $300 million-a-year fishing industry is not at ease either.

Manuel Novejil, a stocky 52-year-old fisherman, couldn't care less about beaches. He used to make his living collecting goose barnacles -- ugly but tasty creatures that grow in clumps on wave-pounded rocks and are eaten steamed.

The ban on harvesting barnacles in his area has yet to be lifted, and Novejil and people like him get $44 a day in compensation.

"The goose barnacles have turned gray from the pollution and they are dying," Novejil said. "With no new ones being born, what will be our future?"

In Muxia, the fishing town that the Spanish media baptized as ground zero of the catastrophe, the coast was coated in thick layers of filth. Waves hurled globs of oil as high as the street lamps on the seaside promenade.

The beach now looks clean.

There are villagers who acknowledge that some of them have earned more than they did going out to sea, and the area has also benefited from a Galicia-wide recovery plan that promises to pump more than $13 billion into new roads and tourism facilities.

"In Muxia, we've hit the jackpot," said Santi Rey, a 63-year-old retired fisherman outside the fish market, where the pickings are slim but of good quality. "If it hadn't been for the Prestige, we would have been forgotten by the authorities."

The spill has also galvanized Spain's environmental movement. Galicians famed for suffering setbacks in silence or emigrating to Latin America launched an angry protest movement called Never Again.

"We had to make ourselves heard," said Manuel Rivas, a writer who led protests by thousands in Galicia's largest cities and in Madrid, the capital. "The sea is part of our identity."

Rivas added: "Politicians come and go but we Galicians have to live here with the monster, an environmental Titanic, day after day."

Long-term biological studies are pending, although a study released in June by 40 university professors in Galicia said it will take five to 10 years for fishing to recover.

Meanwhile, a drugstore in A Coruna offers swimmers a homemade cleanser of chemical solvent and moisturizers, plus an upbeat slogan: "Enjoy the beaches, forget about the Prestige."

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