Ecological disaster in Galicia

by Lorraine Williamson

For weeks, tiny plastic balls have washed up on the beaches of Galicia. Environmental organisations speak of an ecological disaster that threatens and pollutes the ecosystem. Meanwhile, the population and environmental organisations blame the authorities for not doing anything about the disaster.

The plastic balls the size of a small lentil are so-called ‘pellets’. They are washing up on a large part of Galician beaches. In the meantime, hundreds of volunteers have come into action to help clean up the pellets.

The Spanish newspaper El País explains in an article what is known so far about the environmental disaster that is causing a lot of concern in Galicia. See also the video.

Where do the pellets come from?

The Spanish government believes that the grains came from one of the containers of the ship Toconoa. On December 8, the ship, which sails under the Liberian flag, lost six containers approximately 80 kilometres off the coast of northern Portugal. The area at sea is the responsibility of Spain.

What are pellets?

Pellets are small plastic pellets that are used for the production of plastic materials. The washed-up bags bear the name Bedeko Europa, a production company based in Poland. It is not yet clear whether these are ‘ordinary’ plastic pellets or additives pellets. In the latter case, the granules are mixed with potentially harmful polymers to give plastic certain properties. For example, to ensure that the plastic does not turn yellow in the sun.

Are the plastic pellets dangerous?

The government of Galicia, the Xunta, is analysing the material washed up on the beach. But, the results are not yet known. The Galician Minister for the Environment, Ángeles Vázquez, has assured that the small plastic balls “are not toxic or dangerous”. However, she does say that “it is plastic and must be removed from the beaches”. The company that transported the pellets also indicates that the material is non-toxic.

Experts in marine biology and contamination say the material can be harmful to aquatic life and have long-term adverse effects on the ecosystem. In addition, the grains are very stubborn and can end up anywhere due to the current.

How much of this material has fallen into the sea?

For the time being, it is estimated that the container that fell into the sea on December 8 contained about a thousand bags of 25 kilos. So far, only 60 bags have been found on the beaches.

When did the alarm go off in Galicia?

On December 13, a citizen found a bag of plastic pellets on the beach and alerted Galicia’s emergency services. On 5 January, the Xunta activated the Camgal Protocol for marine pollution.

The contingency plan is now alert level 1. The Xunta has indicated that it will not change this level until more is known about the degree of pollution. It is only at level 2 that Galicia can claim national aid.

Last Monday, the Public Prosecutor’s Office started an investigation into the case with a specialised environmental unit.

Which area is affected?

The first plastic pellets reached the Barbanza region, but the pollution now affects the entire coastline of Galicia. In addition, the pellets have now also reached the coast of Asturias. A contingency plan has now been put into effect there as well.

Why do volunteers clean the coast?

Hundreds of volunteers have joined forces to clean up Galicia’s coastline. They blame the authorities for their slow action and demand that the government take on the coordination. Meanwhile, the Xunta of Galicia and the national government are pointing an accusing finger at each other.

The Galician government blames the central government for only passing on information about the lost containers of plastic material after 14 days. For its part, the central government points out that the Xunta was already aware of the first pellets washed ashore on December 13 through alerts to the emergency services. These services are the responsibility of the Vice-President of the Regional Government.

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