Spain declares environmental emergency as millions of plastic pellets spill from ship
Communities across Northern Spain are fearing an environmental disaster as millions of tiny pellets, which were spilled by a cargo ship off Portugal last month, continue to wash ashore.
On 8 December 2023, the Liberia-registered Toconao, chartered by the shipping firm Maersk, lost six containers while sailing around 80km off northern Portugal. One of the six containers held over 1,000 sacks of plastic ‘nurdles’ — small PET pellets used in the manufacture of plastic products — weighing over 25,000kg.
Las bolitas de plástico del #Toconao llegan a la costa de Asturias. El @GobAsturias mantiene un dispositivo activado de vigilancia en playas y rías para ver el alcance del vertido. En #Galicia vuelven a ser los voluntarios, como en el #Prestige, los encargados de la limpieza. pic.twitter.com/jbfaLGJBj4— TPA Noticias (@TPAnoticias) January 8, 2024
PET is not biodegradable, meaning pellets will remain in the environment for centuries. The pellets can also be eaten by animals, and contribute to plastic in the food chain.
Dozens of communities across Spain’s northern coast have seen a “white tide” of the 5mm nurdles washing up ashore in the weeks following the disaster in December.
The Galicia region followed neighbouring Asturias on Tuesday (9 January 2024) by activating a level 2 emergency alert.
Hundreds of volunteers have taken to beaches in an attempt to clean up the spill in the north-west Galicia region, while fishers have been searching for sacks floating in the Atlantic.
Es lo que pasa con esta gente ,— Ross (@enricross1964) January 9, 2024
La Xunta y Rueda personalmente ocultaron 26 días el vertido de plásticos. Intención: ver si el Toconao pasaba desapercibido y no se enteraba nadie.
Cuando la cosa explota , La Xunta defiende que los microplásticos del 'Toconao' son inocuos,… pic.twitter.com/FlsxZX0xAh
There are fears the spill will continue to spread further east along the northern coast towards the Basque country.
In a statement, Maersk spokesman Rainer Horn says the shipping company ‘regretted’ the incident and would investigate.
Spanish public prosecutors have opened an investigation into the spill. The regional Galician government has pointed fingers at the national Socialist-led government, accusing it of not informing local authorities of the spill for two weeks, and failing to activate a marine pollution plan. The national government denies this.
Spain encountered its worst environmental disaster in 2002, when the oil tanker Prestige broke up, spilling 60,000 tonnes of oil along the region’s shoreline.
El Gobierno avisa: la Xunta debe activar el nivel de emergencia 2 para que pueda darle apoyo con los pellets— Europa Press Galicia (@EPGalicia) January 7, 2024
El abogado de los armadores del 'Toconao' estima que el contenedor accidentado albergaba 1.000 sacos de pellets y se "desconoce" si se hundió https://t.co/CXVdzjxHZC
The ongoing Toconao spill is reminiscent of the X-Press Pearl disaster, in which a cargo ship carrying chemicals caught on fire off the coast of Sri Lanka in May 2021, resulting in the spillage of an estimated 70 billion nurdles into the ocean.
Main image courtesy of Sören Funk/Ocean Image Bank.