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Who Is Responsible For New, Massive Oil Spill?

by Tito Drago

on Prestige oil spill
(IPS) MADRID -- The ENVIRONMENT-SPAIN: NEW OIL SPILL SAID TO REVEAL GAPS IN LAW By Tito Drago Ê MORE BY THIS AUTHOR , Nov. 21 (IPS) -- environmental disaster caused by the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the northwest coast of Spain has revealed gaps in international law when it comes to prevention, responsibility and compensation for those affected, say officials and activists.

The Nov. 19 oil spill has reached land and now covers 300 kilometers of the Atlantic coastline of the Spanish autonomous community of Galicia, near Vigo, Europe's largest fishing port.

"The tremendous environmental and social tragedy linked to the Prestige makes evident once again that existing international institutions cannot keep up with what they are needed to do," Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former head of UNESCO and president of the Foundation for Peace, told IPS.

The Prestige began to founder a week ago, and broke in two Tuesday as it was being towed out to sea, with a load of 70,000 tons of fuel oil.

The vessel sank 250 kilometers off the Galicia coast to a depth of 3,600 meters, taking the bulk of the fuel with it, but is estimated to have lost 5,000 to 10,000 tons of its load.

Spain's Environment minister Jaume Matas acknowledged Thursday that the damages from the spill are very serious, but he also said the measures implemented by the government "were the best possible."

Matas confirmed that the oil slick extends 295 kilometers, covering 90 beaches, and that 1.5 million square meters of surface area to be recovered.

Clean-up will cost an estimated $42 million, says Matas, though the total could be much higher if the fuel oil barrels that went down with the Prestige were to burst.

Mayor Zaragoza charges that there are such enormous holes in the international legal framework that no one, "not the states not the international organization," can be held responsible for what occurs in these tragedies.

"Today, in addition to tax and drug-trafficking havens, there are other havens that make it possible to sail these veritable environmental time-bombs," said the former UNESCO chief.

His criticism is shared, to varying degrees, by government authorities, scientists, and non-governmental organizations specializing in environmental issues.

The three trade unions of Galicia are planning a massive demonstration for Dec. 1 in La Coru–a, the largest city in that region, to protest the ecological and fishing catastrophes caused by the oil spill.

The unions are clamoring for "effective solutions and appropriate measures for the workers who are affected" by the disaster.

The authorities estimate that 4,000 people in the fishing industry have been temporarily left without work. Another 28,000 in industries related to fishing have also been affected.

According to the local environmental group Ecologists in Action, the Spanish authorities lacked the means to react when they learned that the Prestige was in danger. As a result, preventive measures were not implemented, say the activists.

The sinking of the vessel with 70,000 tons of fuel constitutes an incalculable threat to the Galician Atlantic seaboard.

The area affected by the oil spill is noted for its rich biological diversity, the result of cold ocean currents attracting great quantities of sea birds to the so-called "Galician bank."

The captain of the Prestige, Apostolos Maguras, has been arrested and charged with crimes against the environment and of failure to assist in efforts to save the ship. Justice authorities have set bond at $3 million.

But legal responsibility for the accident is difficult to peg. The ship is the property of a Liberian-based company, is registered in the Bahamas, while the ship's operating company is Greek.

The chartering company is a subsidiary of a powerful Russian consortium with headquarters in Switzerland, and the American Bureau of Shipping gave the ship the green light, authorizing it as fit to navigate.

According to a spokesperson from the chartering firm Alfa, the responsibility falls solely on the operator company, as stipulated in the international convention on fuel tanker accidents.

But the operator, Universe Maritime, says that if the Spanish authorities had offered the endangered ship a place in one of its ports the damage would have been much less.

The practical measures that activists and experts are demanding in the wake of the spill include a definitive ban on tanker ships without double hulls and a rerouting of the shipping channel, farther from the coasts of northwest and northern Spain. Some 6,000 vessels carrying potentially dangerous materials pass within 80 kilometers of the Galician coast each year. One of five is just like the Prestige, says senator Anxo Quintana, of the Galician Nationalist Bloc.

The Business Confederation of Galicia demands the immediate enactment of a ban on single-hulled ships carrying dangerous substances.

The new tankers used in transporting toxic materials or fuel are built with a double hull, but there are still many older ships, like the Prestige, travelling the oceans without the added protection.

The United States unilaterally banned single-hulled ships in 1992, but the European Union, of which Spain is a member, signed on to an international treaty that postpones the retirement of such vessels until 2015, reported the EU's transport commissioner, Loyola de Palacio.

The Business Confederation also urged Spanish authorities to push for the shipping channel reroute in both the European and international arenas.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF, also known as Worldwide Fund for Nature) proposes expanding the zones designated as Óparticularly sensitive sea areas," conducting more rigorous inspections of older tankers, and limiting the movements of ships in ecologically fragile areas.

The Trade Confederation of Labor Commissions, meanwhile, demanded that the EU pay special attention to vessels bearing flags of "convenience."

In the case of the Prestige, which sailed under the Bahamas flag, legal claims should target the permissive legislation of that country.

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Albion Monitor November 22 2002 (

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