Student remembers clean-up of Prestige oil disaster

Nov 19, 2003 01:00 AM

by Doug Kennedy

One year ago the oil tanker Prestige began breaking up off the north west coast of Spain, eventually spilling more than 50,000 tons of oil into the sea. Pollution spread across the region of Galicia and further along the Portuguese and French coasts, devastating the local fishing industry and covering hundreds of beaches with oil. The Spanish government estimates that cleaning up the spill will cost at least EUR 1 bn (£ 694 mm).
Scottish student Gavin Humphreys, 21, was on an Erasmus year at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in November of last year. Mr Humphreys, from near Dingwall in Ross-shire, said that he remembered hearing about the worse than usual weather on the radio at the time.

"I followed the story until it sunk a week later and the oil started hitting the coast," he said. "I tried to find out how to volunteer to help and managed to pick up that there was a meeting the next day in front of the cathedral, where a bus would take us to the coast.When we arrived we were supplied with wellies, waterproofs, gloves, face-mask and goggles, and my bus, the first of the three, went off to a beautiful, wee cove beach.”
"When we arrived the situation was controlled by a UK expert in oil spills along with a man from a local ecological organisation, who made sure everybody was doing the job right. We started at the water and worked our way up, gathering the oil and putting it into plastic buckets using our gloves.”

"In the afternoon I changed my position in the chain and helped carry the buckets of oil up the hill to where the skip was. At the end of the day the volunteers washed down their boots, put on their shoes and headed back to the small farming township to get their bus.” Mr Humphreys said the next day went along the same lines, but with less people and a lot less formality.
"The rain and wind was also replaced by lovely sunshine which made for a more relaxed atmosphere," he explained. "The use of a vehicle made the job of taking the tar up the hill a lot simpler and we cleared 16 tons of oil. The vehicle was supplied by Southampton-based Oil Spill Response, who had a team of eight in Galicia and are owned by the oil companies and are permanently ready to act when there is an incident.”

"By the end of the day the beach was officially uncontaminated, although it still looked pretty bad at the top, the theory being that it would probably do more harm than good to pull it off with all the vegetation. The worst covered boulders were to be removed by bulldozer and then volunteers were to return in six months to see how the area was recovering. It was horrible, dirty and heavy work and I suppose the number of volunteers may have waned over the weeks and months but I'm glad I did my bit."
The Aberdeen University student has now returned to Scotland to complete his degree in Hispanic Studies and International Relations. On the anniversary of the disaster, the RSPB has revealed figures showing that thousands of seabirds killed in the slick came from nesting grounds in north and west Scotland and around the Irish Sea.

Source: BBC
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