Estonia allows dangerous ship to escape

Activists arrested, rustbucket tanker deemed 'safe'

Feature story - 29 November, 2002
In the seaside town of Tallinn, Estonia, 20 Greenpeace activists prevented the next oil disaster from leaving port until port authorities arrested them and let the ship go. Chained to the mooring lines of the rusting, 26-year old Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned tanker Byzantio were some of the same activists who last week were cleaning up after the Prestige oil spill in Spain. They would rather have stopped this oil from leaving port than be cleaning it up on another beach.

Greenpeace activists stop the single-hulled oil tanker 'Byzantio' in the port of Tallinn, Estonia, preventing it from leaving with its cargo of 50,000 tonnes of oil.

Upon learning of the ship's location and planned route, Greenpeace scrambled to assemble an international team to stop the ship within 48 hours. Hoping to keep the tanker from taking on oil, the team raced against time to get equipment, inflatable boats, and survival gear together for a possible extended conflict, with team members assembling from offices across Europe. They arrived to find the ship fully loaded with oil, 41 feet deep in the water, and with its engines warming up for departure. They arrived in the nick of time.

The Byzantio is chartered by the same company that contracted the ill-fated oil tanker Prestige that sank off the north-western coast of Spain earlier this month. The French government has called the ship a "floating dustbin" and demanded additional inspections by the Estonian government. The Estonian inspectors found "no major defects" according to press reports.

No MAJOR defects? That doesn't appear to have satisfied the French government, who have ships on standby to escort any unsafe tankers into French ports for additional inspections. Insanely, ships like the Prestige and the Byzantio can pass safety inspections and be deemed perfectly safe, due to the laxity and loopholes of shipping regulations.

"The world has been able to see the unimaginable amount of damage to the environment that oil tankers such as this cause to the environment. It would be direct governmental negligence to allow one more hazardous ship to leave port," said Pernilla Svenberg of Greenpeace. "The Prestige catastrophe is clear proof of the threat ships like the Byzantio are for the environment. With the experience of the Prestige behind us, European governments must ban these ships from our seas. We can't afford to wait 13 more years."

13 years is the UN's "accelerated" schedule for phasing out single-hulled oil tankers.

Like many aging and unsafe oil tankers, the Byzantio is registered under a flag of convenience - a place where regulations are soft and inspectors are often willing to turn a blind eye to irregularities. The Byzantio flies a Maltese flag. Recently, the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, one of the world's leading port inspection authorities, placed Malta on safety "black list" for its failure to fulfil basic safety measures.

European ministers responsible for transportation, energy and telecommunications are scheduled to meet in Brussels on December 6 and maritime safety and environmental issues are expected to be high on the agenda. Denmark, the current seat of the EU Presidency, is expected to present several initiatives to tackle the issue of dangerous shipments. "This is a chance for European governments to stop these hazardous shipments," concluded Svenberg. "They shouldn't waste it."

Air disasters commonly lead to the grounding of similar planes until safety checks and assurances can be made. Why should the shipping industry be any different? The loss of life in the Prestige disaster may not have been human, but it was devastating. No unsafe tankers should be allowed to sail until the EU ministers meet to review the regulations, tighten them up, and stop these ships from sailing again.

And until Greenpeace is convinced that our elected officials are going to make our seas safe from oil, we don't believe ships like the Byzantio should be allowed to sail. 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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