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New Oil Spill Reveals Gaps In International Laws

by Sanjay Suri

on Prestige oil spill
(IPS) LONDON -- The sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain Nov. 19 could lead to the toughening of a new directive due to be debated by the European Parliament later this month.

The directive as it stands proposes stronger punishment for polluters who damage the environment in biodiversity areas marked as protected. The directive could now be given more teeth to cover many more areas, environmentalists say.

"Birds don't care if they are in protected areas or not," Geert Ritsema, campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth in Brussels told IPS. "Expanding the scope of the directive will make it easier to go after the polluter and make the polluter pay."

Marine polluters already face more stringent measures than other kinds of polluters, but there are limits on the liability of a convicted polluter. "We would like to see the upper limit for liability removed," Ritsema said. "It is important that the liability should be so strict that owners do not risk big claims. Such a directive must also be a preventive measure."

The draft directive to be debated before the European Parliament covers only about 20 percent of the EU's biodiversity, and only around 13 percent of its land area. The Prestige disaster is now expected to lead to a fundamental review of the directive.

A tough new directive is expected to get strong support from the European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the European Union (EU). The EC is proposing new inspection rules to prevent oil spills like the one from the Prestige.

The measures before the European Parliament were proposed following the oil spill from the Erika tanker almost three years ago. "These measures are good so far as they go but had they been taken earlier they still would not have prevented the Prestige disaster," marine expert with the WWF, Dr Sian Pullen told IPS. The Prestige was on way from Latvia to Singapore and was not calling at any EU port, she said.

"We would like the EU and the EC to take the lead in an international framework to promote firm regulation and preventive measures around the world," she said.

Environmentalists are asking for special care with shipping routes in environmentally sensitive areas and also for tightening of safety measures for shipping. "The measures to be adopted will have to be a combination of both," Dr Pullen said.

WWF is calling for a four-point plan to help prevent spills. The measures it proposes are:

  • Undertake risk assessment of areas believed to be particularly sensitive and vulnerable to shipping activities;

  • Designate, through the IMO (International Maritime Organization), those sites that qualify as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas or PSSAs;

  • Introduce and enforce strict regulations tailored for the individual sites, such as 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;

  • Improve maintenance and inspection globally of all vessels, but particularly those approaching their decommissioning age.

"In the 11 years since PSSAs were first created, only five have been identified, and only one of them is in Europe," Pullen said. "The Prestige was an accident waiting to happen and it's unbelievable it was allowed anywhere near the rich marine environment and valuable fisheries of Galicia."

WWF has been calling for the Galician bank around the area where the Prestige sank to be designated a Marine Protected Area for some time.

Friends of the Earth said in a statement Wednesday that there is a "crying need for tough new liability laws for environmental damage" It called also for a strict watch on shipping companies cloaking ownership to avoid liabilities.

The Prestige is "registered in Bahamas, was managed in Greece, and carried oil for a Swiss company (with mostly British directors) whose ultimate owners are Russian," Friends of the Earth said.

Several commercial organizations including the Confederation of British Industry have opposed the draft directive. But the Prestige disaster is expected to weaken their case when it is debated in the European Parliament.

"Once again a European coast is under threat from a massive oil slick," Matt Phillips from the Friends of the Earth said. "Politicians must resist the disgraceful lobbying from the oil industry and their friends and draw up tough rules that ensure people and the environment are put ahead of big business."

Environmentalists are asking for a tightening of laws to prevent future disasters, but can only hope that this one does not cause more damage than it has already. About 80 kilometers of the Galicia coastline of Spain have already been blackened by the spill. A second oil slick was reported to be forming on Wednesday.

There is hope that the oil on board would solidify in the cold. But a Greenpeace leader warned that the Prestige could turn out to be a time bomb at the bottom of the sea.

Recent disasters with oil tankers include accidents involving The Brear (Jan. 5, 1993) off the Shetland Islands releasing 26 million gallons of oil, The Sea Empress (Feb. 15, 1996) off Wales spilling 18 million gallons of oil, and the Erika (Dec. 12, 1999) off Brittany on the French Atlantic coast spilling three million gallons of oil.

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Albion Monitor November 22 2002 (

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