The black tide inches to shore. And Spain holds its breath

Eye witness: Prestige oil spill
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The Independent Online

White waves are crashing on to golden sands along Spain's beautiful "coast of death''. Bright fishing boats throng the harbour and seabirds go about their business without a care in the world. At first sight, and from a distance, there seems nothing wrong with the long chain of coves and beaches that stretch along the Galician coast from La Coruna to this beautiful mountain-surrounded harbour on the very edge of Europe, despite the much-publicised oil pollution of the last week.

White waves are crashing on to golden sands along Spain's beautiful "coast of death''. Bright fishing boats throng the harbour and seabirds go about their business without a care in the world. At first sight, and from a distance, there seems nothing wrong with the long chain of coves and beaches that stretch along the Galician coast from La Coruna to this beautiful mountain-surrounded harbour on the very edge of Europe, despite the much-publicised oil pollution of the last week.

It is when you get closer that you notice the difference. The first thing to hit you is the smell, like a garage forecourt in the days when they actually attempted to mend your car rather than to sell you crisps and CDs with your petrol.

Down the shore the rocks are clearly blacker than even the darkest should be. Close up, it seems that they have been painted a glistening uniform black and it is here the smell is coming from. The high tide marks of the beaches are also daubed with oil. The boats are in harbour because they are not allowed to fish.

It is all very nasty and spells grave economic troubles for the area but it is visually not nearly as bad as suggested by last week's television pictures of thick black tides surging onto the beaches from the oil discharged by the tanker Prestige.

Indeed, Lhlee Lofthouse, a technician with Oil Spill Response – who arrived with pumping equipment to clean the beaches last week – told me that he had to look for two days before he could find any with enough oil to pump away.

On the beach next to the fishing village of Caion, much filmed by television crews last week, a group of some 30 men was finishing cleaning the sand by languidly sweeping the contaminated bits of it into a series of molehills which were then carried away to fill a skip.

Mr Lofthouse – a former army diver who now works for the non-profit making clean-up company, financed by oil firms – said the sand was "exceptionally easy to clean'', but added: "Removing the oil from the rocks was going to be very much more difficult even than in normal spills because it was particularly thick and sticky."

A veteran of oil spills around the world, he said that the inaccessibility of much of the craggy coastline will make the job even harder. It will be impossible to clean the miles and miles of rocks, even though the political pressure in such circumstances was always to remove everything. He said that cleaning off all the oil could damage the ecology more than the pollution itself: the best thing was to clean the worst bits and let the rest recover naturally.

"It may not suit us as people that it comes ashore and turns everything black but it is a natural product and will disappear naturally," he said. The strength of the waves along the coast would help clean it faster.

Yesterday, there were already signs that this is beginning to happen. At Barranon beach, near La Coruna, the top of the rocks are still glistening black but they have been scrubbed clean below the tideline by the action of the waves. So far, at least, this does not appear to be the "environmental catastrophe'' so widely hyped last week.

Two things might change this. Firstly, only a relatively small proportion of the oil in the Prestige has come ashore. Some 20 or so slicks are still at sea. One reached the sensitive wildlife area of the Lagoon of Doninos, near Ferrol, yesterday, and another threatens Cies Islands near Vigo, the first national park to be set up in northern Spain.

Secondly, the oil seems to be unusually toxic. The first proper analysis will be published tomorrow but it is known to have four times the normal amount of sulphur and a high concentration of cancer-causing chemicals. No one knows what the long-term effects will be and environmentalists point out that the relative cleanliness of the beaches may be concealing a more sinister tragedy. However the main effects of the spill are likely to be economic. With cruel accuracy it is targeted at the area that produces one third of Spain's shellfish at the most critical time of the year: the Spanish eat shellfish at Christmas and the people of Galicia normally triple their monthly income over the next weeks.

"It's an ecological tragedy, but the social effects will be much greater and must not be devalued," said Suzanne Requena, Marine Protective Area Officer for WWF Spain. Part of the problem, she says, is that the publicity surrounding an oil spill "makes people frightened" to eat the fish and shellfish "for long afterwards". Already fishing has been banned all around the coast.

The dangerous Galician coast, which has seen 300 wrecks over the past century, has been hit particularly hard by oil spills, with four major ones in the last 25 years. Yet, as the WWF points out, the area still does not have a rapid response emergency plan, and has too little equipment. It says, for example, that there are only 18km of booms to keep the oil out of sensitive areas whereas at least 100km are needed. The WWF calls the lack of preparedness "absolutely pathetic''.

But Mr Lofthouse is more fatalistic. He says: "You can try to deflect the oil, partly as a result of political pressure and partly because it's a natural thing to do, but in the end, 90 per cent of the time, the spill goes where it wants to go."

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