At the beginning of the new decade the people in Madeira celebrated the discovery of the island 600 years ago but the end of 2019 also marks the 30 year anniversary of an occurrence that bears no need for celebration. On the 29th December 1989 the Spanish oil tanker Aragon suffered heavy damage through a storm around 360 miles off the coast of Morocco and lost over 25,000 tonnes of crude oil from its centre tank. The oil drifted toward the Southwest before eventually reaching the eastern coast of Porto Santo, the small sandy holiday island North of Madeira.
To prevent damage to local flora and fauna the locals immediately started cleaning the dark, sticky substance from their shores but the poor access to the rocky basalt shores and lack of cleanup equipment didn’t make things easy. Human chains passing buckets off the rocky shore up to containers are some of the images associated with this environmental disaster, which manifested the difficulty of the situation but also the willpower of the people on the tiny island. Limited resources in mainland Portugal prompted the people from the Portuguese archipelago to finally ask for international assistance and before long a task force was assembled by the European Commission. Large pumps were used to remove the bulk oil along the shoreline combined with continuous manual efforts allowed the removal of 15,000 tonnes of oil over a period of seven weeks. High pressure hot water and cleaning agents were used to scrape off the final remnants of oil along the coastline and the recovered oil was then transported the Netherlands for recycling.
The aftermath of Aragon for the littoral fish fauna around the affected area was determined by scientists a year after the spill and again ten years later and results showed that the effects were much less disastrous than expected. Despite this, the memory of this disaster serves as yet another argument as to why we need to move on to more renewable energy sources. Oil has caused several environmental disasters, contributes to climate change, has sparked wars and its extraction destroys both marine and terrestrial environments. We have all the arguments and available technology to do better.
By Paula Thake
Note: Photo taken from Diário de Notícias archive