Some 14,000 of its 77,000 metric tons of heavy oil remain in the tanker Prestige, which sank off the coast of Spain in November 2002 and now rests below 3,800 meters of water. The spill immediately following the tanker's breakup caused upward of $1 billion in damages to Spain's shoreline and fisheries, and officials worry that the remainder may seep and periodically contaminate the coast. An attempt last October to retrieve some of the remaining oil has given engineers hope that they might be able to remove the infamous cargo safely.
The test took months of planning by the Spanish oil company Repsol YPF, which recruited engineers from various industries specializing in deepwater operations. Ramon Hernan, technical director of the Repsol team, notes that until now, "there was no successful attempt to recover oil from a ship beyond a depth of 150 meters" and that "no robots had worked successfully at almost 4,000 meters." Retrieving the oil demanded modified deep-sea equipment and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). "When you talk about 4,000 meters deep, there is no commercial activity there. Few industries push beyond 3,000 meters," explains Massimo Fontolan, a managing director of SonSub, the Italian firm that built one of the ROVs used in the operation.
This article was originally published with the title Planning for Prestige.