ECOLOGICAL DISASTER

Prestige oil spill trial date set 10 years after Galicia coast blighted

October start to hearing expected to last seven months; damages of over 1.2 billion euros sought

Large sections of Galicia's coast were affected by the slick. / RICARDO GUTIÉRREZ

The date for the trial against officers and merchant shipping companies over the Prestige disaster has been set for October 16, the Galicia regional High Court announced on Monday, although a venue for the proceedings has yet to be decided.

The macro-trial will feature 2,128 parties defended by 51 lawyers and represented by 28 attorneys. A total of 133 witnesses have been called to testify in the class action, through which some 1.26 billion euros is being sought in damages.

Spain's worst ecological disaster occurred in November 2002, when oil tanker the Prestige broke in half off the coast of Galicia, spilling 77,000 tons of crude, the majority of which washed up on the region's coast, but also spread to neighboring Spanish provinces, France and Portugal. The sinking of the Prestige, which was sailing under a Bahamian flag, might have been avoided if not for the hesitation of the Spanish government, the ship's owners and salvage companies. After lengthy negotiations, the Industry Ministry decided to tow the ailing tanker further out to sea in rough weather, where it broke up and shed its deadly cargo.

The case has been brought by the United Left political grouping and Nunca Máis, a Galician civil platform set up in the aftermath of the disaster. Among the many defendants are the ship's captain, Apostolos Mangouras, his chief engineer, Nikolaos Argyropoulos, and the first mate, Ireneo Maloto. All three face charges of environmental crimes and civil disobedience, with prosecutors demanding a 12-year sentence for Mangouras. Also indicted for their alleged civil responsibility are The London Steam-Ship Owners Mutual Insurance Association Limited, the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage and the ship's owner, Liberia-based Mare Shipping Inc.

The then director general of merchant shipping, José Luis López-Sors, is also set to be put in the dock again, charged with environmental crimes. López-Sors, the harbor master of A Coruña at the time, Ángel del Real, and then government delegate in Galicia, Arsenio Fernández de Mesa, all previously gave testimony in a case brought by the Nunca Máis platform. The three officials were charged with "aggravating" the catastrophe by ignoring technical advice and ordering that the listing tanker be towed out to sea.

The trial is expected to take around seven months.

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