Guest Columns

SMITH: REMEMBRANCES OF ANOTHER TRAGIC OIL SPILL

Volunteers may have to help with oil spill

Looking at the coverage of the Gulf oil spill makes me think back to November 13, 2002 when the hull of the oil tanker, Prestige, cracked off the northwestern coast of Spain.

Holding twice the amount of oil as the Exxon Valdez had carried, it should have been towed into a port so that the oil could be offloaded in a small, contained area. Instead, the Spanish government — later joined by the French and Portugese — made the disastrous error of insisting that it be towed as far out to sea as possible.

As a result, when it sank, oil spread for hundreds of miles along the coasts of Spain, France and Portugal, doing enormous damage to some of the great fishing grounds of Europe and destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen. It’s not clear even today to what extent that coast has recovered.

What these pictures depict are volunteers who came from all over Spain and many parts of Europe like Romania, Holland and Belgium to help with the clean up. Unlike the situation in the Gulf, most of the Prestige cleanup was actually done by volunteers.

Wearing these white suits and hospital face masks, they climbed down on rocks covered with tar-like oil, scraped it off with hand trowels, dumped the tar-like oil in big buckets and lugged it back up the hill to a disposal point. (I have no idea where all this oil eventually ended up.) It was physically exhausting as well as extremely frustrating. Often new oil would wash in overnight and recoat the areas the volunteers had already cleaned.

It was also dangerous; the rocks were slick with oil and, even with the hospital masks, the fumes were overwhelming. I was only able to endure it for a couple of hours at a time, yet many of these volunteers came every weekend for months.

To date, our response in the Gulf has been a government-industry one. But before this is over, I predict that thousands of individual American volunteers will be involved just as these Spaniards were in 2002 and thereafter.

Morgan Smith, Democrat, served in the Colorado House of Representatives and as the state commissioner of agriculture, and was director of the Colorado International Trade Office.