No One Found Guilty of ‘Prestige’ Oil Disaster in Spain

Marea negra en una playa gallega. Foto de Wikimedia Commons con licencia CC by SA 3.0

Black oil slick at a Galician beach.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons used under license CC by SA 3.0

On November 13, 2002, the petrol tanker Prestige sank off the coast of Galicia in northern Spain, causing a highly toxic oil spill that polluted parts of France and Spain's Atlantic coast in what is considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Eleven years later, after ten years of investigation and a nine-month trial, the Galician High Court of Justice has acquitted three of the defendants – the ship's captain, Apostolos Mangouras; the ship's chief engineer, Nikolaos Argyropoulos; and the head of Spain's merchant navy at the time, José Luis López Sors – of all crimes against the environment. A fourth defendant, the vessel's second officer, remains on the run.  

The catastrophe occurred when, due to unknown causes, one of the ship's oil tanks was punctured near the “Coast of Death.” The ship's captain asked Spanish authorities for permission to dock, but was prohibited from bringing the tanker closer to shore for fear that the leak would pollute the port. He received the same response from Portuguese and French authorities. The Prestige was forced to return to the high seas with a cracked hull and in terrible weather conditions, which would later lead to its sinking and the massive oil spill that followed. 

El petrolero Prestige a punto de hundirse tras partirse en dos. Foto del blog Ecología Verde con licencia CC by NC 3.0

The oil tanker Prestige about to sink after splitting in two. Photo taken from the blog Ecología Verde and used under license CC by NC 3.0

According to the Spanish blog El ojo Sostenible (The Sustainable Eye):

  • La catástrofe del Prestige fue la mayor catástrofe de este tipo ocurrida en Europa y la segunda del mundo después de Exxon Valdez en Alaska.
  • 2.000 km de costa se vieron afectadas y entre 250.000 y 300.000 aves murieron.
  • El coste supuso más de 10.000 millones de euros.
  • The Prestige catastrophe was the largest of its kind in Europe and the second worldwide, following the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
  • 2,000 km of coastline were affected and between 250,000 and 300,000 seabirds killed.
  • Clean-up costs climbed to more than ten billion euros.

The acquittal reverberated around the world in publications such as as Al Jazeera [en], The Telegraph [en], The Times [en], BBC [en], The New York Times [en], Le Monde [fr] and Der Spiegel [de]. In Spain, the court's decision has outraged citizens, who have expressed their frustration on social networks. On Twitter, “Prestige” has been a trending topic for several days:

 “Prestige” case: From “everyone to jail”, to “everyone free”! Long live wine!

The Prestige committed suicide. 

Gonzalo Semprún tweeted a political cartoon by Manel Fontdevila that shows the judge exiting the Galician High Court of Justice. Meanwhile, a group of birds covered in oil peer at him from around the corner. “What did you say that movie was called?” one bird asks the other. “The Birds”, the other replies:

Manel Fontdevila: No one found guilty in Prestige case.

Some tweets compared and contrasted the disparity between this case and others. Alba Martín Tutor cited a recent case in which a cyclist in Sabadell was fined 100 euros (about 134 US dollars) for eating a croissant while riding his bicycle:  

We're idiots in this country: A 200-euro fine for a man eating a croissant while cycling, and nothing for the Prestige case.

Twitter user Verónica compared it to an ongoing case in Girona in which a professional pianist is being sued over noise pollution by her downstairs neighbor, who alleges her piano playing caused psychological damage. The public prosecutor originally sought a seven-year-jail sentence, but has since reduced it to 20 months: 

Playing the #piano: noise contamination and seven years in prison. The #Prestige dumps 63,000 tons of oil and it isn't a crime #verguenzadejusticia [disgraceful sentence]

Pablo Correas Tébar noted a case in which five people are facing time in prison over alleged aggression toward police during a protest in Guadalajara against education budget cuts:

No one guilty in the Prestige case; but for defending public education? Four years jail #MarcaEspaña [Spanish brand] 

Iván Pandora wrote on his Spanish-language blog La Caja de Pandora (Pandora's Box):

Un grupo de voluntarios trabaja, en la localidad de Muxía, en la limpieza del fuel vertido por el petrolero 'Prestige'. Foto de con licencia CC by SA

In the Muxía region, a group of volunteers works to clean up the oil dumped by the Prestige tanker. Photo taken from and used under license CC by SA

Parece que el hecho de que ese barco (monocasco) – que según los expertos era muy anticuado y con medidas de seguridad más que precarias – tuviera permiso para navegar por las costas gallegas no es punible.

La controvertida decisión de alejar el barco y esparcir el fuel durante horas por toda la costa, tampoco.

La pésima gestión del gobierno y la lentitud por no decir inoperancia, parece que no merece ninguna disculpa oficial.


It seems the case is not punishable due to the fact that the ship -single-hulled and, according to experts, very old and equipped with more than precarious security measures- had permission to navigate through the Galician coastline.

Also not punishable, it seems, was the controversial decision to remove the tanker from the coastline, spreading oil throughout the area for hours.

The government's abominable management and slowness, if not uselessness, seem to be deserving of not a single official apology.

Blogger Juantxo López de Uralde lamented that charges were never pressed against those chiefly responsible for the catastrophe:

Ya al juicio se llegó sin que ninguno de los responsables políticos reales de aquella tragedia se sentaran en el banquillo. (…) Pero no sólo nos llama la atención la falta de políticos, sino también hay que preguntarse cómo es posible que ninguno de los responsables del fuel, del flete, de las compañías propietarias del buque… se sentaran en el banquillo. Pero es muy doloroso que quede impune la negligencia criminal de aquellos que mandaron el barco “al quinto pino”.

The trial came to an end without a single person politically responsible for that tragedy sitting in the courtroom's dock. (…) But we aren't just looking at the politicians, we also have to ask ourselves how it's possible that not one of those responsible for the fuel, the cargo, the shipping company…sat there in the docks. But it's particularly painful that the criminal negligence of those who sent the tanker out to sea went unpunished.

The environmental activist group Nunca Máis, which formed in response to the Prestige disaster, has decided not to appeal the ruling, and the region's fishermen's cooperative is considering the same, due to the very high legal fees involved [es]. According to El Confidencial [es], in this catastrophe it's the taxpayers who lose:

Voluntarios limpiando la playa de Carnota (La Coruña). Captura de pantalla del vídeo «Historias del Chapapote» con licencia CC by SA 3.0

Volunteers cleaning the beach at Carnota (La Coruña). Screen shot from the video «Historias del Chapapote» [Tar Stories] used under license CC by SA 3.0

La sentencia considera que los únicos tres procesados por el accidente no incurrieron en ningún delito, por lo que no se le puede exigir responsabilidad civil a nadie. La consecuencia más importante es que los seguros del armador no cubrirán los gastos que generaron las labores de regeneración de la costa. (…) La Fiscalía cifró en 4.328 millones de euros los gastos y los daños generados (…). Pero el dictamen anula cualquier reclamación económica.

The verdict means that the only three defendants prosecuted for the accident are not guilty, and for this reason, civil liability cannot be imposed upon anyone.  The most significant consequence is that the shipowner's insurance won't cover the costs incurred in the coastal clean-up. (…) The prosecutor quoted around 4.328 billion euros [about 5.8 billion US dollars] in costs and damages (…). But the ruling takes away any right to economic claims.

Costs could rise if French plans [es] to re-file the administrative review presented by the coastal protection trade union of Las Landas, the French area affected by the spill, to the National High Court days after the disaster are successful. Their lawyer Renaud Lahitète said:

Lo presentamos al día siguiente de llegar fuel a nuestras costas por precaución, para poder actuar en caso de que se dictaminase que no había delito penal, como así lo dice ahora la sentencia.

We presented the review as a precaution the day after oil arrived on our shores in order to be able to act in case it was found that no crime was committed, just as the acquittal has done now.

Greenpeace Spain now considers the decision to be “a white card allowing the petrol industry to put the environment, and citizens, at risk.” The organization's campaign director María José Caballero stated [es]:

La sentencia demuestra que en España no estamos preparados para juzgar una catástrofe medioambiental, ni para condenarla, ni para defender el medio ambiente.

The sentence shows that in Spain we are not yet ready to try an environmental catastrophe [in the courts], neither to condemn it, nor to defend the environment.


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