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Trial opens in case of oil spill that blackened French, Spanish coasts

By Al Goodman, CNN
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The captain of the oil tanker Prestige could be sentenced to 12 years in prison if convicted
  • The ship broke apart in a storm in November 2002, spilling oil that blackened miles of coastline
  • It was an ecological disaster for the region and an economic disaster for the fishing industry

Madrid (CNN) -- Nearly a decade after what many consider Spain's worst environmental disaster, a trial began Tuesday over the massive oil spill in November 2002 that blackened hundreds of miles of coastline along Spain and France.

The oil tanker Prestige issued an alarm on November 13, 2002, in a storm with gale-force winds off northwest Spain in an area known as "the Coast of Death," famous for numerous shipwrecks.

The ship reported it had a gash in its single hull and some of its cargo of 70,000 tons of fuel oil had started gushing out.

Spanish authorities soon ordered the stricken ship to move farther off the coast. It struggled for days but on November 19, at 8 in the morning and about 145 nautical miles off the coast, it split in two and sank.

Oil continued to leak from it, at the bottom of the Atlantic, in the ensuing days.

Much of this oil, described by some as having the sticky consistency of chewing gum, came back to blacken hundreds of miles of coastline in Spain and in neighboring France.

It was an ecological disaster, with dead and oil-laden birds as a painful reminder.

It was also an economic disaster for Spain's vital fishing industry, which was brought to a standstill for months over health concerns.

On Tuesday, the trial began in La Coruna, the Spanish city near where the ship was initially stricken.

The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison if convicted of environmental crimes. He will plead innocent, his legal team told CNN.

But he is not expected to testify until next November 13, ten years to the day, when the Prestige first experienced problems. Mangouras was 67 at the time, according to the state prosecutor's office.

The captain, along with a London-based insurance consortium, also could face damage payments of $5 billion, if the court accepts the claims filed by the national governments of Spain and France, and by numerous local administrations, as well as businesses and individuals, according to court officials in La Coruna.

Three other men also face lesser charges: a Greek officer on the ship; a Filipino officer on the ship whose whereabouts are unknown, a court official said; and a former Spanish merchant marine government official.

The trial's opening day focused on procedural issues. Testimony of the defendants begins on November 13. The trial is expected to take months, with a verdict possible by next autumn.

There are 70 lawyers and 1,500 claimants who are represented in 55 associations, and dozens of witnesses. Authorities are holding the trial at the fairgrounds in La Coruna, because the normal courtrooms in town are too small.

Outside the courthouse on Tuesday, hundreds of people from the group Nunca Mais (Never Again) demonstrated. The group, formed to help clean up the oil spill and demand justice, lists its name in the gallego language of the northwest Galicia region.

Lawyers for Nunca Mais seek five years in prison for the former Spanish merchant marine government official, although the state prosecutor has not charged him, Xose Sanchez, a Nunca Mais spokesman told CNN.

Nunca Mais contends that the former official executed orders from government superiors, which forced the stricken ship out to high seas, instead of letting it take refuge in a port to try to contain the damage, Sanchez said.

Spain's northwest coast appears to be back to normal, but environmentalists say there's still lasting damage from that huge spill on the Coast of Death.

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