Europe Looks to Maritime Rules After Tanker Spill

BRUSSELS, Belgium, November 20, 2002 (ENS) - The loss of the oil tanker "Prestige," which broke in two and sank off the Spanish coast Tuesday prompted the European Commissioner responsible for transport and energy to urge that all European Union transport ministers act to safeguard European waters against another such spill.

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European Commission Vice President Loyola de Palacio is responsible for transport and energy. (Photo courtesy SITCPLA)
Commission Vice President Loyola de Palacio called for "effective and advanced implementation" of European legislation on maritime safety.

The Bahamian owned single-hulled tanker got caught in a storm November 13 and foundered in heavy seas, spilling some 1.3 million gallons of fuel oil into the Atlantic Ocean. Much of it has washed up onto Spain's Galician coast near the Portuguese border, fouling about 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the rocky shore.

Yesterday, the ship sank about 75 miles offshore taking most of its 70,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil down some 3,000 meters (9,750 feet) to the bottom. Some experts have warned that some of that oil will eventually leak from the vessel under such an enormous amount of pressure.

On Thursday, Friends of the Earth campaigners will be protesting outside the London offices of Crown Resources AG, the owner of the oil cargo carried by the "Prestige." Campaigners in white chemical suits will present the company with buckets and mops and demand that it faces its responsibility for the pollution.

Crown Resources was formed in Gibraltar in 1996 and is now headquartered in Zug, Switzerland. Several of the company's directors come from the UK, and one is a former minister in the Gibraltar government. Crown Resources is owned by one of Russia’s largest privately held financial-industrial conglomerates, the Alfa Group Consortium.

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European Space Agency satellite image of the oil trail left by the "Prestige" as of November 17. The slick cuts across a major shipping lane. (Photo courtesy ESA)
The tanker's Greek operators, Universe Maritime Ltd., state that the ship's owner Mare Shipping of the Bahamas, is fully covered for shipowner's pollution liability within the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund. But governments and conservation organizations are not reassured.

Expressing agreement with Commissioner de Palacio's position, the Danish Presidency, which is now at the helm of the European Union, has placed the issue of oil tankers in EU waters on the agenda for the Maritime Transport Council Meeting on December 6.

“Once again we are the sad witnesses to a major maritime accident along the European coast," said Bendt Bendtsen, the Danish minister for economic and business affairs, who is responsible for maritime affairs. "My deepest consideration goes to the local population who is depending on fishing and summer tourism for their livelihood," he said today.

Communities affected by oil spills experience feelings of "distress and despair" that are "similar to coming home to find that it has been burgled and vandalized," said KIMO International, Northern Europe's environmental organization of local government authorities.

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Soldiers clean the beach near the village of Caion where this woman used to harvest clams. (Photo © WWF/Raúl García)
On behalf of more than five million coastal inhabitants, KIMO today called for major reform of compensation regimes for pollution, saying, "Local authorities have always known that there would continue to be major pollution incidents until the standards of shipping are improved."

KIMO has longstanding grievances over the inadequacies of the various compensation issues which spill-affected communities experience long after the media attention has disappeared. Loss of tourism is never fully compensated, the organization said.

At KIMO's head office in the UK's Shetland Islands, where the "Braer" oil tanker spilled millions of gallons in January 1993, the organization said, "It seems those rogue ship owners and cargo owners who continue to ship their products in sub-standard ships can receive full compensation, but innocent victims never receive full compensation and in many cases end up taking their cases to court to recover costs."

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(Photo © WWF/Raúl García)
Dr. Simon Cripps, director of WWF's Endangered Seas Programme, said today, "It is high time to stop lamenting incidents like the Prestige, and start using the tools that already exist to protect fragile marine habitats."

"Three main factors affecting the risk of shipping disasters are the design of ships, the maintenance of ships and the controls on where ships can go. If you get one of these things wrong you can have a disaster on your hands. It seems that in the case of the Prestige, all three factors had a role in what went wrong," Dr. Cripps said.

The WWF is calling for the regulation of shipping in vulnerable marine areas. The organization's four point plan of action covers:

  1. Conducting analysis to identify areas believed to particularly sensitive and vulnerable to shipping

  2. Designating, through the International Maritime Organization, those sites that qualify as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas or PSSAs

  3. Introducing and enforcing strict regulations tailored for each PSSA including: banning single-hulls vessels in these areas; identifying areas to be avoided or recommended routes; requiring experienced pilots on board when ships have to pass through these areas; or requiring mandatory reporting as ships transit sensitive areas; and

  4. Improving maintenance and inspection globally of all vessels, but particularly those single-hulled vessels approaching their decommissioning age.

WWF would also like to limit the routes that ships carrying dangerous and toxic material are allowed to take. The "Prestige" was carrying a heavy industrial fuel oil for use in power plants, which WWF says is one of the worst types of oil to spill.

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Tanker "Prestige" in trouble on November 13 (Photo courtesy Xunta de Galicia)
"Because this oil is so thick and viscous it is difficult to disperse and is likely to have a more severe long-term impact than lighter oil types. This sort of cargo should never be allowed in or near sensitive or protected marine areas," Dr. Cripps warned.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has sent a specialized emergency team to Spain to assist in the rescue and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife. For the past three days team members have been assessing the situation and complementing local efforts with international expertise.

"We are committed to assisting in whatever way we can to ensure the rescue and rehabilitation of seabirds and other wildlife affected by this tragedy," said Barbara Callahan, head of the IFAW assessment team.

"We've already seen dozens of birds weakened by the thick oil covering their feathers and expect to see many more as search and collection teams patrol the beaches. We will do everything we can to save these animals as they struggle to survive the devastating impact oil has on them."