The Prestige oil tanker disaster was the worst environmental catastrophe in Spanish history, and one that tainted the Popular Party administration of José María Aznar, which had been riding the crest of a booming economic wave.
When the Prestige limped into Galician waters, in serious trouble and with a cargo of 77,000 tons of crude oil, the Public Works Ministry made a snap decision which would have disastrous consequences: to send the tanker as far away from the coast as possible in a bid to minimize the potential impact of the ship breaking up. In an emergency meeting with the Prestige bearing down on Galicia, oil already leaking from its hold, the boat's technicians were under political orders. The instructions of then-minister Francisco Álvarez Cascos were crystal clear: "They want only one thing: for us to get the boat as far away as possible," one of the ship's officers was recorded as saying.
"A good distance away, sure, but to where?" said another technician as chaos reigned in the government's crisis room.
"Direction 325, northeast," said a third.
"Yes, but to where? Do they want us to go to America?
"The SAR zone," came the reply.
"To where?" said the technician.
"Just tell them to take it to the middle of nowhere!" a minister is heard to shout.
After the Prestige went down hundreds of kilometers of coastline in Spain, France and Portugal were inundated with crude oil. But the government refused to accept the reality as the black tide snaked toward Spain's shores. "Everything suggests that the oil in the Prestige's tanks will solidify on the sea floor and there won't be any more spillage," said then Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Everything suggests that the oil in the Prestige's tanks will solidify on the sea floor"
"The swift intervention of the authorities in moving the ship away from the coast has averted an ecological catastrophe," said then Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister Miguel Arias Cañete.
Defense Minister Federico Trillo had a radical solution: "If I'm unsure about the bombing the boat before it sinks to provoke a fire it's because it's risky and complicated and it's not clear if it would consume all the oil."
Álvarez Cascos said that the spill would be compact and would later disperse, while Rajoy confidently claimed that "there is no danger of it reaching the Rías Bajas," Europe's largest natural shellfish stock and a National Park area. A few days later Galicia's Rías were swamped with glutinous oil.
José María Aznar told Congress that "there are threads [of spillage] but they are solidifying immediately." Rajoy told a news conference the same thing, with a now famous quote he attributed to his technicians: "I am being told that the leaks are solidifying and look like plasticine stretched out vertically."
When the scale of the disaster became abundantly clear, casting doubts on the actions of the government, Rajoy made this conclusion: "We made many mistakes, as is evident, but we worked very hard."
The clean-up operation required the work of thousands of volunteers and the Spanish navy, while offshore fishing was suspended by the regional government of Galicia for six months. The operation cost an estimated 4.3 billion euros.