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The Prestige: One Year Later Proves Worse than Exxon Valdez

Washington, D.C. - World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) warns in a new report released today that the Prestige oil spill crisis is not over, with both the marine environment and the fishing sector on the north-western coast of Spain still suffering from the disaster one year after the tanker sank. This conclusion comes despite claims by the Spanish government that the affected area is recovering well.

The WWF-International report, The Prestige: One Year On, A Continuing Disaster, reveals that nearly 71,000 short tons of oil were spilled by the Prestige - 60 percent more than initially estimated - contrasted with 42,769 short tons spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The report further shows that, in addition to the more than 14,000 short tons of oil remaining in the wreck, there are still between 5,500 and 11,000 short tons of oil drifting offshore and periodically landing on the coast.

According to the report, damage to fishing industries and related economic sectors, tourism, and the natural heritage along some 1,800 miles of coastline polluted by the spill - versus 1,300 miles of coastline impacted by the Valdez - may last for over a decade and cost approximately $5 billion, with society at large paying some 97 percent of it. Around 30,000 people in the fishery and shellfish sectors have been directly affected. After the fisheries were reopened some local fishermen's organizations reported an 80 percent drop in their normal catch.

The study also states that the large quantity of oil, that sank onto the bed of shallower coastal waters, raises serious risks of contamination by toxic pollutants. Contaminants on the sea bed can enter the food chain through organisms that ingest sediments, and eventually appear in products of commercial value, such as sea bass, octopus, crabs and shrimps.

The Spanish government has proposed a $12 billion recovery plan for Galicia. However, WWF reports this plan puts too much emphasis on crude and rapid economic development, and that it is likely to increase Galicia's environmental problems rather than help the province recover from its damaged environment and resources. "Until now, the Spanish government's management of the catastrophe has neither been driven by environmental criteria nor been transparent," said Raul Garcia, Marine Officer at WWF-Spain and author of the report. "If the government continues to declare that the situation is under control, this looks like a cover-up rather than a cleanup."

"WWF is concerned that total investment on research into the Prestige oil spill will probably not reach $10 million, compared with around $270 million for research into the impact of the Exxon Valdez spill," said Simon Cripps, director of WWF International's Endangered Seas Campaign. The conservation organization points out that the Prestige spill, because of its complexity and magnitude, holds striking potential for scientific findings of global importance, and that failure to carry out appropriate research will hamper the regeneration of damaged ecosystems and commercial resources.

According to the conservation organization, it is important to strengthen maritime safety legislation to minimize the risk of such a crisis happening again. "WWF urges the shipping nations - through the International Maritime Organization - to identify the world's most sensitive and vulnerable areas, with the aim of declaring them Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas" (PSSAs), added Cripps. "Such areas, in conjunction with stricter shipping regulations, will help reduce the impact of further oil and other spills." This Spanish coastline is one of six IMO-designated PSSAs - including the Florida Keys - that would benefit from legislative control over single hull tankers. WWF is supporting the strengthening of maritime safety legislation to minimize harm to the global marine environment.

The Prestige tanker sank on 19 November 2002, after an erratic six-day drift near the Galician coast. Some 300,000 seabirds (mainly common guillemots, Atlantic puffins and razorbills) are estimated to have died from the oil spill. This accident is considered by scientists to be one of the most devastating man-made disasters ever to have occurred in Europe.