TOPICS > Science

Oil Tanker Sinks Off the Coast of Spain

November 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The tanker Prestige now lies at the bottom of the ocean, 150 miles off the coast of Spain. It sank yesterday after suffering damage in a storm last week. We have two reports from independent television news correspondents, beginning with Juliet Bremner in the Galicia region of Spain.

JULIET BREMNER, ITN: Wading into battle — the enemy is oil, but it’s impossible to know how devastating the final assault will be. Every wave washes more contamination ashore, but out at sea, a massive oil slick, 150 miles long, still threatens.

The fear is that with force eight gale winds blowing directly onshore, the whole of the Galicia coastline is very soon going to be covered in this thick sludge.

The Spanish army are on the beaches, clearing some of the 5,000 tons spilt last week. But the Prestige went down with more than ten times that amount still in her hold. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.

ANDREW VEITCH: There is hope tonight that most of the oil that sank with the Prestige will stay there. Salvage experts say some may trickle through cracks in the hull, but soon the cold temperature and high pressure will make the oil virtually solid, so it’ll seal the cracks. It could even be recovered.

The fore and aft sections of the Prestige are lying more than two miles down on the floor of the Atlantic. Six tanks are thought to be intact in the stern section, and four in the bow — inside them, nearly 70,000 of heavy diesel oil, now almost solid because of the cold. No one has tried to recover oil at this depth. If it’s to be pumped to the surface, it has to be liquefied. One method, used in shallow waters, is to inject emulsifying chemicals to make the oil runny. Another is to use microwaves to heat it. Either way, it would clearly be a multimillion pound operation.

DAVID MEARNS, Salvage Operator: It’s an ecological disaster no matter what because of the amount of oil that’s come along shore, and it probably would have been better had they dealt with that problem in shore, but the second-best place for this wreck to be is actually in the deep ocean, as it stands to today — 50, 60 years from now, that may be a different situation.

ANDREW VEITCH: And this is why: Sixty years after the battleship Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow, the diesel fuel, leaking slowly from its tanks, started causing significant pollution. So the Prestige may yet turn out to be something of a toxic time bomb for another generation.

RAY SUAREZ: And with us now is Captain Richard Smith, commandant of cadets at the State University of New York Maritime College, until March 2000 he served as the captain of the Mira Star, a 1,300-foot supertanker; and David Kennedy, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration, which provides expertise on oil spills.

And, David Kennedy, I guess we’ve got really two sets of oil: The oil that has come out of the Prestige and the oil that is still with it. Let’s talk about the slicks first. There is said to be very bad weather off the coast of Spain today and more expected tomorrow. How does this work with the spills as they are?

DAVID KENNEDY: The weather is going to be the dominant factor right now in what happens with the slick that is still at sea. Our predictions from experts in the area show that we’re going to have onshore winds for the next several days — probably at least through Saturday. And the winds right now we think are the driving factor here. They are going to be continuing to drive oil ashore. Keep in mind we have a slick that started some three miles offshore and really continued out to 140 miles. So we have a body of oil that probably in the near shore is going to act different than the far shore but, nonetheless, all of this weather will be driving this oil as far as we can tell, continuing to drive it ashore.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s being blown toward land now. I’ve heard in previous spills coverage that very high, choppy seas and heavy winds and a lot of motion on the water often works in favor of people who are trying to disburse these kinds things, is that not the case?

DAVID KENNEDY: It’s not as much the case here, in part because the fuel oil that was on this vessel is quite thick and vicious, it has a specific gravity of about .97, .98. It’s buoyant but only just so.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, for those you don’t know what specific gravity is, could you compare it to a household item —

DAVID KENNEDY: Basically sea water is, has a specific gravity of 1.02 or something like that. So if you have something in that range, it means that it’s buoyant and it does float. The specific gravity talks about how closely it is to floating and being buoyant. In this case it floats but it’s in the as buoyant as a lot of other products we deal with. So it kind sits low in the water and it’s very viscous and tarry and you saw that from some of the pictures here. So what happens is it will break apart, but it does not break apart into smaller parcels like some of the crudes and the lighter oils do. That itself will cause some problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk briefly about the thousands of tons still with the ship at the bottom of the ocean: Cooled off presumably and under tremendous pressure.

DAVID KENNEDY: I don’t claim to be a salvage expert but in the speculations that we have tried to look at the issue, two potential scenarios: one is that the tanks made it to the bottom more or less intact, and that the oil is still residing in the tanks in that state. One issue I don’t think maybe has been as explored is the fact that this oil was warmed because it needed to be warmed to be pumped on and off. The thermal mass –just the volume of oil you have is not going to cool overnight. It’s going to take some period of time.

So we have looked at a number of like spills where there has been this kind of an oil present and where they’ve taken it out and dumped it, sunk it for one reason or another and we have seen a tendency for there to be leakage at least for the first two or three days until that volume of oil has had a chance to cool off and then as suggested by the salvage experts we think we see the same thing, but we may have a period of time while it is cooling when even if it got intact to the bottom it could still be leaking.

RAY SUAREZ: Captain Smith, when this ship reported it had a 35 foot gash in its hull or crack in its hull, it requested being towed to port but nobody wanted it. Is there a normal procedure for ships that are out at sea for what happens when they report this kind of a problem on board?

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: Normally, a vessel at sea in any sort of situation has reporting requirements — obviously the owner of the vessel, the legislative group or regulating society of the vessel and also the ports in which the vessel would want to be pulling into or off of. In this case it’s such a major crack they would have to consider the stability of the vessel — you know, the conditions of the waves, the wind, the velocity of the wind, things like that to determine if the crack could possibly get worse and what you can do on the vessel to minimize any further damage to the vessel.

RAY SUAREZ: But the closest port when the Prestige reported its problems is within its rights to say oh, no don’t bring it here?

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: Yes, it’s within the port’s requirements just as in the United States, the Coast Guard has the right to basically refuse or to accept vessels into that port, especially in the case of something that could be such a huge tremendous ecological impact on the port.

RAY SUAREZ: It was towed further out to sea instead of into port. How do as 35 foot crack end up in an enormous ship literally breaking in two and falling to the bottom of the sea?

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: Well, all ships obviously are built to sustain certain stresses. Ships such as tankers typically are framed for and aft or longitudinally. Once you get a crack running in the same direction, it’s very easy for that crack to continue spreading until you can alleviate or arrest the crack. So it’s not that it’s common thing but once it starts it could very easily spread as it did. And once the crack spreads you can virtually have the ship split in half as it did.

RAY SUAREZ: When is ship is this big, capable of carrying 22,000 tons of oil, is it compartmentalized; are there separate chambers where the oil is filled, or is it more like a fountain pen or a big tube where the oil is all together and pooled together in the boat?

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: No, tankers as any ships will be sub-compartmentalized to give it individual strength within the structure itself. I believe this particularly vessel probably had two sets of tanks running side to side and probably at least eight to ten tanks running fore to aft; the thought behind that and the design reason for that is to give it more rigidity, more compartmentalization so if you have a localized problem or a localized area of stress, hopefully it can be absorbed by the rest of the ship without causing a breach of the whole integrity of the vessel.

RAY SUAREZ: Now David Kennedy, when there have been big accidents like that, the Exxon Valdez, the Amoco Cadiz, about 25 years ago, who pays and does it take sometime to figure out who is responsible for getting things going in the cleanup?

DAVID KENNEDY: Historically and I think today that is in fact a dilemma, who pays. Obviously, in the case of this vessel there were owners and then there were intermediaries. All of those have to be brought in and the issue has to be discussed with each of them. There is certain limited liabilities, and I think Mr. Smith actually should comment on this himself.

There are liabilities that vessels have so quite often, even if you find the right people to pay from the vessel that has caused the spill, your liability limits are exceeded and there is tremendous amount of additional work that needs to be carried out and that requires funding that is not available from the shipper. At that point, you start kind of a cascading finger pointing at who is next in line to bear responsibility. But ultimately, the tankers have a maritime organization that they can turn to for assistance, but quite often, states, provinces, counties, countries end up footing some of the bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Captain Smith, in the case of the Prestige, it’s got a Bahama flag, Liberia registry, the cargo is owned by a Swiss based company run out of Russia, the vessel, I believe, is owned by a Greek consortium or at least managed by a Greek consortium. There is a lot of different fingers in the pie here. Who eventually end up having to take the final hit on this?

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: Ray, that is a pretty complicated question. You know, it’s pretty normal in the shipping industries to have something like that. You can have a consortium or an owner, you know, chartering the vessel out to another party and that vessel could be registered and flagged by different countries or by flags of convenience. So in the case of something as drastic as this, it’s going to be up to the courts to decide who has what percentage of liability.

RAY SUAREZ: And when you, once you say it’s going to the courts, I’m assuming this is going to take sometime as well.

CAPT. RICHARD SMITH: Yes, you know, look at the Valdez as an example. Look at the Braer. Even the Erica, things like this will take years basically to litigate because it is a complicated trail.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there anything working in Spain’s favor at this juncture, David Kennedy?

DAVID KENNEDY: I think maybe to take the optimist’s view one thing that is working is it appears at least to date that the remaining cargo has not been released. That is very, very positive. If all of that cargo had been released the magnitude of this issue would have been huge compared to what it is.

The fact possibility that it is not crude oil, a residual oil such as this fuel oil was, is considerably less toxic. The fact that it was pulled quite far out to sea before at least it lost the million plus gallons at the breakup, all of those things I think are working in favor of Spain.

There is a number of things that aren’t and the fact they already have oil on their shores obviously is a very significant issue. Obviously it appears there will be more to come but there are those positive things.

RAY SUAREZ: David Kennedy, Captain Smith. Thank you both.