Another tanker carrying oil in the Baltic runs aground

While the sunken Prestige could leak oil for four more years

Feature story - 12 December, 2002
We said it was only a matter of time, and it seems we were right. Another tanker carrying 55,000 tonnes of fuel oil ran aground in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda overnight. There are conflicting reports whether the vessel is leaking oil but authorities will attempt to tow it into port. Much further south, off the coast of Spain, the Prestige, which broke up and sank a month ago, continues to leak oil, as much as 125 tonnes every day.

At the site of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Greenpeace activists display a banner reading Oil Hazard EU Clean up your act, referring to the now famous Prestige oil tanker disaster in Spain.

Princess Pia was on route from Spain to Klaipeda and only 43 metres from the breakwater when making a turn, the ship went out of control for an unknown reason and ran aground reported the port's harbourmaster. The weather conditions were fair with poor visability.

The Princess Pia is registered to Panama, a country well known for offering flags of convenience which allows ships to profit from less restrictive regulations. It is a tanker with a double bottom and has already been involved in two accidents, one being a collision in La Plata, Argentina where it spilled two tonnes of oil.

The authorities had no success earlier attempting to tow the ship off the bottom and have said they will unload some of the fuel today in order to lift the ship out of the shallow water.

The fate of the Princess Pia and the surrounding ecology is still unknown, but the Prestige which continues to blacken Spain's northern coast offers a glimpse of the risks involved with such dangerous shipments.

The Prestige oil spill has already coated 900 kilometres of Spain's northern coast in a thick oil sludge. Approximately 9000 tonnes have already leaked from the sunken ship which continues to leak as much as 125 tonnes of oil a day through a number of holes in the hull. The head of the scientific committee monitoring the Prestige says the ship will continue to leak for at least another five months up to four years before it is empty.

The spill has devastated wildlife in the region and the fishing industry along the northern coast has been closed because of the pollution. And oil continues to wash up on the shores everyday.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says they've made every effort humanly possible to confront a tragedy and a catastrophe they've never known in Spain. He says it was a tragedy no country could ever be prepared for.

But is this true?

It isn't the first devastating oil spill. Not long ago the Erika spilled more than 10 million litres of oil when it broke in two during rough weather off the north-west coast of France in 1999. The European Union responded to the Erika crisis adopting rules inadequate to prevent another accident, and they have never even been fully implemented.

But when the Prestige started leaking oil not far from the Spanish coast, Smit, the international salvage company towing the Prestige, asked to bring the tanker into a harbour which would have made recovery operations easier. President Aznar said no take it out to sea, where it broke up and now lies 3600 metres deep leaking.

President Aznar admits now he made some mistakes and Justice Minister José María Michavila has announced legal proceedings against the owners, operators and captain of the sunken oil tanker. But the European Union continues to make mistakes rejecting strict regulations that would ensure disasters like these never happen again.

Last week EU transport, telecommunications and energy ministers meeting in Brussels failed to agree on strong measures to protect the world's oceans from the threat of hazardous and toxic shipments in substandard vessels. They agreed to ban single hulled vessels transporting heavy fuel from its ports, but it is up to each EU member state to decide when the ban takes effect. And the ban does not apply to single hull vessels transporting all hazardous cargo, and does not exclude the vessels from ecologically sensitive marine areas.

But the EU Heads of State have the power to stop any other disaster from occurring. They must radically improve what is currently on the table or they will be directly responsible for the future disasters that are sure to come.

Today heads of EU states will meet in Copenhagen to discuss expansion of the union. Some heads of state are determined not to let the issue of the Prestige die. And while expansion will happen over several years and regulations will take time to implement but the Prestige will continue to leak and the affects of more oil spills could affect all of Europe for years to come. It is time for the EU to lead the way setting an example of strict regulations that will protect the marine environment.

Take Action

Help us by taking action now to support this action. Demand that the European Union tighten up the loopholes and flag of convenience laws that allow deadly cargoes to sail past our fragile coasts legally. Demand an end to the tragedy of oil spills.

Join the discussion of the spill in Spain.

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