Frontline World

SPAIN - The Lawless Sea, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Lawless Sea"

Interactive Atlas

Troubled Waters

The Case of the Prestige

Regulation, the Environment, Labor




Center for Investigative Reporting

The Story
People cleaning the beach, Man removes dead fish from water, Crowd protests

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Galicia, a region in northwestern Spain, is the jagged, western edge of Europe -- a wild stretch of coastline with some of the world's richest fishing grounds. On a rocky point, near the small town of Muxia, a church commemorates the place where the Virgin Mary is said to have come ashore in a stone boat. Now there's a new monument at the holy site -- a massive rock sculpture depicting the cracked hull of the oil tanker, the Prestige, that sank off this coast in November 2002, causing one of the worst oil spills in history.

The story of the wreck of the Prestige begins in Russia, where the ship is loaded with oil in the port of St. Petersburg. The oil tanker has a murky and complicated history -- her owners are Greek, but they have registered their ship through a front company in war-ravaged Liberia. It's a strategy that limits taxes and liability. At 26 years old, the rusting, single-hulled tanker is well past the age of retirement. But that doesn't deter the owners from loading the aging ship with crude oil number 4, one of the most toxic fuel oils known.

On October 30, 2002, the Prestige sets off. As the tanker enters the heavily trafficked shipping lanes off Spain's Costa del Muerte, the Coast of Death, she encounters a winter storm. The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, hears a loud bang from the starboard side. Suddenly, the ship begins to take on water. Twenty-foot waves batter the hull and her engines shut down. Mangouras issues a call for help.

Rescue helicopters evacuate the poorly paid Filipino crew. Already leaking oil, the Prestige drifts to within four miles of the Spanish coast. Spain dispatches a 68-year-old veteran captain, Serafin Diaz, to take control of the vessel. "The boat looked like an alligator in the middle of quicksand," Diaz tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro. Lowered onto the floundering vessel, the silver-haired Diaz discovers a gaping 50-foot hole on the starboard side -- the steel had been ripped away.

Diaz explains to Mangouras that the Spanish government has ordered him to restart the ship's engines and steer the Prestige out to sea, away from Spain. But Mangouras refuses, saying the ship should be brought into port where the leaking oil might be confined. The two men argue for hours. Finally, Diaz threatens to bring in the Spanish navy, and Mangouras relents.

The Spanish plan is to get the wounded ship out to deep water in the middle of the Atlantic, but after several days of sailing -- and being towed -- the Prestige snaps in two and sinks, only 130 miles from the coast. Mangouras is arrested and charged with negligence and resisting Spanish authority.

The people of Galicia wait nervously, bracing for what might be coming to foul their coastline. Soon, sheets and massive clumps of oil wash in with the tides, killing millions of fish and birds. The "black tide" contaminates 350 miles of coastline with almost twice the oil that spewed from the infamous Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

For the next six months, the beaches look like a scene from science fiction as men in haz-mat suits blast the sticky oil from the rocks with high-pressure hoses. The coast smells like a gasoline station. The cleanup will cost an estimated $2 billion -- the ship's insurance covers only $25 million.

Spain imposes a six-month ban on fishing in the region, causing great economic hardship. Just as reporter Schapiro is visiting the region, fishermen are returning to work, anxious to prove that it is safe to eat their catch, though some environmentalists, including the World Wildlife Federation, question whether it is advisable to consume local fish and shellfish.

"This is an act of terror, a criminal act," says Rafael Mouzo, a fisherman and mayor of the coastal town of Concurbion. "We need an international tribunal to judge ... all those responsible for the spill."

On the first anniversary of the Prestige disaster, 100,000 people take to the streets of the Galician capital, Santiago de Compestela, organized by a new environmental movement called Nunca Mais ("never again") in Gallego, the local Galician language.

As people demand to know who is to blame and who should pay for the damages, Schapiro discovers that Serafin Diaz and the Spanish government recovered documents from the Prestige that indicate the ship never should have been allowed to go to sea.

It turns out that while the ship was still in St. Petersburg, she had another captain, Esfraitos Kostazos, who sent the ship's owners a series of urgent messages warning that the ship was not seaworthy. Instead of making repairs, the owners replaced Kostazos with Mangouras.

In Madrid, the man in charge of the Spanish investigation, Adolfo Menendez Menendez, tells Schapiro that it was hard to identify the mysterious owners of the Prestige, the Coulouthros family, because they set up a network of front companies. Their company in Liberia that owned the Prestige owned nothing more. When the ship sank, there were no assets for Spain to try to recover.

So Spain is filing a $750 million lawsuit against the ship's inspection company, Houston, Texas-based American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), which inspected the Prestige just six months before it sank and declared it seaworthy. Then it turns out that Kostazos, the original captain in St. Petersburg who had tried to contact the ship's owners, also had sent a fax to ABS, alerting them to nine serious deficiencies aboard the Prestige, including cracked and corroded beam parts in the ballast tank.

In a written response to FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro, ABS claims it did not receive the fax.

Meanwhile, maritime union officials say that Mangouras, now awaiting trial in Spain, is a scapegoat for an out-of-control international maritime system that allows broken-down, single-hulled oil tankers to roam the seas.

Mayor Mouzo is furious that not enough has been done to protect the Galician coast: "One hundred and fifty-two ships pass by [here] every day. Ten percent of them are bad ships, pirates. At any moment there could be another accident."

The Prestige has gone down. It is lying two miles below the surface, still leaking oil. Spanish and French submarine robots have sealed some leaks and will be used to extract the remaining 13,000 tons of oil next spring.

But above this graveyard, along the Coast of Death, the unregulated oil tankers keep passing.

Mark Schapiro

Oriana Zill de Granados

Co-Producer and Videographer
Camille Servan-Schreiber

David Ritsher

Associate Producer
Alison Pierce

Kari Lundgren
Diane Solomon
Francine Miller

Additional Camera
Josiah Hooper
David Ritsher

Clara Tarrero
Mercedes Villar

Fia Na Roca
Nordesia Produccions

Additional Footage
Departemento de Salvamento Maritimo,
Ministerio de Fomento
Atlas Espana Tele 5
Nunca Mais
Wildlife Health Center, UC Davis
Ocean Futures Society
ABC News Videosource
American Bureau of Shipping
AP / Wide World Photos

Special Thanks
Deer Creek Foundation
Educational Foundation of America

A Co-Production With the Center for Investigative Reporting

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