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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 16:40 GMT
Oil spills 'should go to beaches'
Sea Empress spill off Milford Haven in 1996
The effects of spills can last for many years
Major oil spills should be dealt with by pushing the oil towards beaches, a leading marine ecologist has urged.

Dutch scientist Martin Schulton said that, in contrast to the usual practice of trying to move floundering tankers further out to sea, they should be moved towards the shore.

In the long run, he said, this was much less environmentally damaging.

"There is not much life on the beach, so it's quite safe to have the oil being stranded on the beach, and remove it," Dr Schulton told BBC World Service's One Planet programme.

"It's easier to remove it from the beach than to remove it from the water or to remove it from rocky shores. So sometimes it might be wise to help the oil in floating on a sandy beach, and remove it there."

Public pressure

In particular, Dr Schulton was speaking in light of criticisms that have been made about the Spanish government's handling of the Prestige spill, off the coast of Galicia near La Coruna.

The Prestige was allowed to drift out to sea after it initially floundered in gale force winds in November 2002. It broke up after six days, spilling 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

Prestige
It will happen again
Galicia fisheries minister Enrique Cesar Lopez Veiga
Last year an official French panel said Madrid's actions had exacerbated the tragedy. In particular they said "good sense" should have told Spain to bring the stricken vessel into La Coruna.

Dr Schulton said that the demands of the tourist industry - fearing television pictures of oil-filled beaches - meant that "sound" planning in environmental terms was not carried out.

"Most of the time, the oil is being flooded without being guided. Sometimes I think that they do want what's the best to show on television. But after two or three days, the oil spill is not an issue anymore."

He did, however, say that he understood why such action would prompt a public outcry.

"The public pressure is of course against such a strategy... It's a short-term win for public opinion against long-term damage to the environment."

Environmental campaigner Mito Fernandes Obanza said that in the case of the Prestige, the decision to let the tanker drift had been "entirely political and, in fact, party political."

EU 'not honest'

However, this was contested by Galicia's fisheries minister, Enrique Cesar Lopez Veiga.

Mr Veiga says he had "no doubt" about the decision.

EU in Barcelona
Mr Veiga says Britain and Holland are preventing the EU from acting
"Taking the vessel out at least minimised damage to the coast," he argued.

He agreed that letting the Prestige drift had damaged a larger stretch of coastline, but he said that doing this had minimised the overall impact.

"If we'd left it on the coast, the damage to Galicia would have been horrible," he added. "I think there are too many people saying a lot of nonsense."

He said that a lot of people were "not really being honest" in their assessment, including environmentalists.

And he said that this also included the EU, which he accused of dragging its feet over legislation to prevent oil spills, singling out Holland and the UK for criticism.

Exxon Valdez
Experts are finding damage to Alaska's coastline 15 years after the Exxon Valdez spill
"They are two interests which are not really helping in being proficient," Mr Veiga said.

Mr Veiga added that he was "sick" of taking the blame for the Prestige disaster.

"We have been the victims," he said. And he warned another major spill was imminent.

"It will happen again, unless we get changes to the legislation," he stressed.

"We have had a little bit, too late, but we are not there."


SEE ALSO:
Student remembers oil clean-up
13 Nov 03  |  Scotland
Spanish oil spill 'not over yet'
06 Nov 03  |  Science/Nature
Oil spill inquiries frustrated
19 Jan 03  |  Europe
Minister quits in Prestige row
17 Jan 03  |  Europe
Oil spill: The consequences for wildlife
19 Nov 02  |  Science/Nature



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