Year one of the Prestige oil spill

A decade of destruction still to come

Feature story - 10 November, 2003
The Prestige oil tanker sank on November 13th, 2002. But this Thursday marks not the one year anniversary of an accident, but year one of a decade-long disaster. Despite this, criminally little has been done to prevent the recurrence of a similar catastrophe.

A oil cleanup volunteer holds a Comorant covered in oil from the sunken Prestige oil tanker on the coast of Galicia, Spain.

In a report released today, The Prestige Disaster, One Year On, we review the year that has passed since 2,000 kilometres of coastline were decimated by lethal fuel oil in one of the worst wildlife disasters in European history. The report outlines how the Spanish Government has failed to adequately evaluate the catastrophe or take protective measures to ensure minmized damage to the environment and human health. Chillingly, the report concludes that

"The characteristics of the Prestige oil slick make it reasonable to suppose that the main effects will appear in the medium and long term, since the continued presence of pollutant substances in the ecosystem means that they will enter most organisms via the food chain."

Those organisms include human beings. Yet despite massive evidence of environmental harm, the loss of whole industries and millions in income, what has been done to ensure it never, ever, happens again?

According to Juan López de Uralde, Executive Director of Greenpeace Spain, "There has been little change in the regulations which would help prevent further similar accidents." The only thing that will stop future accidents is a sea-change in the way liability and responsibility for these disaster is assigned, and according to Uralde, "This has not even been contemplated by the EU or the International Maritime Organisation."

Currently, financial responsibility is limited to the ship owner, and liability scales with the tonnage of the ship. The large multinational oil companies which usually charter the vessels and own the cargo escape all responsibility. Greenpeace in Spain has collected 150,000 signatures calling for an unlimited liability regime: one reflecting the principle that we make the polluter pay.

"Prevention is better than cure," says Greenpeace campaigner Paul Horsman. Paul has stood on oily shores around the world -- from Kuwait to Siberia, bearing witness to the incredible destructive power of oil spills.

"In order to prevent new oil spills, regulations need to force both the shipping industry and the charterers to operate under the highest standards of ships and crews. Further measures are needed to protect sensitive sea areas and increased control of maritime traffic," he said.

"All of these measures could and should be taken by the IMO. However, the organisation has made little or no effort to curtail the activities of the worst aspects of the shipping industry."

International Maritime Organisation: fox guarding the chickens

Instead, the IMO has sought to curtail criticism by removing Greenpeace's consultative status from the organisation, citing issues with our methods of campaigning. The IMO's membership includes Flag of Convenience states which license unsafe, rust-bucket tankers to sail our shores with deadly cargoes.

The shipping industry has access to the IMO to lobby for lessened restrictions. Greenpeace is only one of four environmental organisations which has observer status at the IMO. The remaining 57 largely represent various sectors of the shipping industry. Moves by the IMO to expel Greenpeace are a clear demonstration that it prefers to listen to the voices of vested industrial interests rather than those which would protect human health and the environment.

For more than a decade, Greenpeace has fought for human safety and environmental protection. We've been active in calling for a ban on single-hull tankers and efforts to restrict hazardous waste shipments in the shipbreaking trade.

Far away from the press headlines, an almost silent battle is being fought between those who profit from the business of transporting hazardous substances by sea and those of us who defend drastic measures to prevent new oil slicks.

The recovery of the coastal and marine ecosystems affected by the Prestige disaster cannot be ignored. Studies carried out by Galician universities estimate that it will take 10 years for the areas affected by the Prestige oil spill to return to normal, whilst a complete biological recovery could take until year 2015.

No recovery plan (including proposals for evaluation, recovery and protection) has been announced. Neither the Spanish government nor the regional authorities have taken particular interest in protecting the marine environment.

And although the European Union has forbidden the entry of single-hulled ships carrying heavy fuel oil into European ports, this type of fuel represents only around 5 percent of all the oil products that enter Europe. And the EU law does not forbid ships like the Prestige from sailing in European waters, only from docking in ports. Even so, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has already hit the roof over this timid initiative, and shipping interests in the body are eager to ensure its rollback.

IMO: Act Now!

We believe urgent action is necessary in order to prevent similar catastrophes from happening again. It is clear that a range of measures needs to be implemented urgently which would increase the quality of shipping. These include:

  • A liability regime which can both act as an incentive to use high quality ships and crews and which is more consistent with the polluter pays principle.
  • This means that the charterers (i.e. the oil companies in the case of tankers)should not be excluded from liability as is currently the situation.
  • The rapid phase out of single-hulled tankers worldwide.
  • The establishment of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs) for the most vulnerable coastlines.
  • A more robust and transparent inspection and maintenance regime including the publication of classification society survey results.
  • Closure of loopholes such as the use of Flags of Convenience whereby shipowners can avoid their responsibilities by flagging a vessel with a county in which the standards are lowest.
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