The wind that blows off the Strait wafts the stench of rotten eggs across Punto Europa at the southernmost tip of the Rock of Gibraltar. The smell comes from the boats anchored in the Bay of Algeciras, coupled together by large hoses. “The smell comes from the gas that is released when the fuel barges pump the fuel oil into the vessels. It’s unpleasant and penetrating, but they say it’s not harmful,” says a neighbour of the Rock.

The Bay of Algeciras is an environmental time bomb, with its refinery, its chemical industry, its power station, the British submarine base; it is the place in Europe at greatest risk of oil spills and has the fourth highest volume of bunkering in the world. More than 106,000 ships, 5,000 of them oil tankers – ten percent of global shipping – pass through the Strait of Gibraltar every year. “What we have here is a silent black tide of continuous discharges,” confirms Patricia Navarro, environmental prosecutor in Cadiz.

Although the volume of fuel oils spilled in accidents [in the bay in the past] is huge, the major damage may actually be from fuel leaks during bunkering. “In terms of pollution, Gibraltar is acting with absolute irresponsibility. Here, there is no such thing as ‘polluter pays’”, Navarro charges. It is as if the Rock were calling out across the four winds and seas of Europe: “Come and try it out. We hawk marine fuel 20 percent cheaper and we pump it from ship to ship. Welcome to Gibraltar, a huge floating gas station between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.”

The appeal has been undeniable. Ten years ago the volume of fuel bunkering in the bay was less than one million tonnes. By late 2009 that figure had jumped by well over five times. According to Greenpeace, two thirds of the crude oil is bunkered in waters off Gibraltar and the rest in Spanish waters. Dozens of fuel vessels capable of transferring up to 300,000 tons of fuel set anchor every day. A glance at the ship-tracking website makes it clear that the Bay of Algeciras has become a rest stop for the endless armadas that file through the Strait.

British place no restrictions on vessels that violate European regulations

On the screen there usually appear a few vessels, isolated and out of formation, approaching from the east and hugging the coast at very low speeds. These are the ships that are waiting their turn before the floating gas stations, and, while they wait, they wander between Spanish waters and the waters off Gibraltar, which claims jurisdiction over three miles on the eastern side of the Rock. The ships invoke what in admiralty law is called “innocent passage”, which lets a vessel pass through the territorial waters of another state, so long as it does so quickly and without stopping, and without doing any harm to the coastal state.

In view of the effects of the bunkering, it is doubtful that these vessels pose no potential harm to the towns of Algeciras, La Linea, San Roque, which are already heavily burdened by industrial pollution. However, as explained by the Chief Prosecutor of Algeciras, Juan Cisneros, whenever a Spanish Civil Guard patrol boat approaches a vessel that is invoking “innocent passage”, a British vessel comes out to block its path. Under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, Cisneros argues, Gibraltar has no territorial waters.

Yet the Rock acts as if it did have them, and in practice the Spanish authorities acknowledge the claim. “The big problem of pollution in the bay is called Gibraltar,” he stresses. “In Spanish territory, we enforce greater control. The British place no restrictions on vessels that violate European regulations for the same reason they place no restrictions on money laundering: it brings the money in.” Cisneros believes it would be preferable to deal directly with the United Kingdom, as “at least that country could be questioned within the EU framework.”

Riding roughshod over the concerns of the inhabitants

The message delivered on this subject by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, is summed up in the claim that while the bunkering at anchorage does involve a hazard greater than that posed by refuelling from land-based facilities, the Rock “strictly complies with the law”, both international and that of the EU. The Gibraltar minister argues that Spanish criticism conceals a hidden agenda to get into a debate on the sovereignty of the British territory.

In fact, the EU has not banned bunkering, through it does require that it be carried out scrupulously adhering to established safety standards. It is at this point and over the lack of judicial cooperation where the Gibraltar authorities clash with the Spanish environmental prosecutors.

The Gibraltar authorities plan on allowing a new area to the east of the Rock to be opened up to increase the trade in fuel. That this area belongs to the Natural Park of the Strait of Gibraltar, home to protected species, seems no obstacle. “Because they want to increase their capacity to supply up to 400,000 tonnes, they are now seeking to build a new seawall using the Dutch system to gain more area for refuelling at anchorage,” explains Antonio Muñoz Secilla, founder of the [Verdemar Association](http:// This ecologist believes the initiatives from Gibraltar are part of a game the colony is playing to gain more space, more boats, more business and to consolidate control over the territorial waters it claims, which Spain does not recognise.

Owing of the lack of environmental cooperation between the Gibraltar and Spanish authorities, the AGADEN environmentalists and the Ecologistas en Acción-Verdemar have been working closely with ecologists on the other side of the fence. Both say that, in Gibraltar and in Spain, economic and political interests ride roughshod over the concerns of the inhabitants.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer