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"We are widely considered to be in the elite sphere of even the most responsible classification societies," Wade said. The numbers bear him out. The best measure of classification society performance is kept by the U.S. Coast Guard, which releases statistics every year on how often ships are detained by government inspectors due to errors the societies should have found. Between 2000 and 2002, ABS ranked as the third-best society in the world, with an average of .14 percent of ships detained.
The strong record of ABS sharply contrasts with those of many other societies. About 50 firms describe themselves as classification societies, and until recently, some would classify a ship online without bothering to inspect it. Even societies associated with major countries such as Russia and China sport detention rates more than ten times higher than that of ABS. And some societies are exponentially worse. More than 10 percent of ships inspected by the slipshod Honduras International Naval Survey and Inspection Bureau are detained by the Coast Guard, and the Panama Ship Register is even shoddier, with nearly one in three ships detained.
These lower-end inspectors are remarkably difficult to drive out of business. The only companies with a strong incentive to scrutinize the inspections are the insurance firms, which rely on the inspection reports to decide if they will insure a ship. But in practice, the insurers often look the other way.
"Insurance companies are actually in the business of having the odd marine accident," explained Roger Linkester, a delegate for the environmental group Friends of the Earth to the United Nations International Maritime Organization. "If things get so safe, people are saying, 'Okay, why do we need to pay insurance?' And the premiums tend to go down, because the risk is perceived to be so negligible. So it's in the insurance companies' best interest to have a Prestige every now and again, just to remind people that there is this trampoline of security for somebody to pick up the tab."
Perhaps more than other classification societies, ABS has upbraided the insurers for playing the system. At a recent conference, ABS president Robert Sommervale lambasted the insurers for being "invisible" in efforts to bolster safety and for engaging in "a narrow, desperate race to grab business, any business, at ruinous rates." Insurers were allowing "classification societies to be traded off against each other," he said, resulting in lower standards.
The financial pressures that Sommervale decried may be one reason why his own company doesn't have a better safety record. Ship classification is a labor-intensive business with low profit margins -- the inspection of the Prestige in China cost a mere $1,000, ABS said. With that kind of money, classification societies may have trouble attracting top-quality employees.
"I know some of the lads from ABS, and I find them to be some of the most competent individuals anywhere in ship architecture and marine engineering," said Linkester, who is himself a structural engineer. "I think where there might be a problem is where ABS has satellite regional organizations. I mean, ABS is so big, they have an office in Beijing, an office in Cairo, an office here and an office there, and what is not quite so clear is whether they are able to recruit local staff which have the same level of competence as people, let's say, from the U.S."
The dirty and uncomfortable work of ship inspection is not exactly the kind of profession highly trained college grads are dreaming of, he explained. "I think it's a rotten job, it's a terribly grubby job, crawling through the bilge space of a ship to check the level of corrosion in things, and I think there is enormous temptation not to do it."
Ship owners make problems with the societies even worse. The owners, who pay for the ship classifications, often try to intimidate inspectors into approving substandard vessels. Sommervale railed against the problem last year at the World Maritime Forum. A ship owner "will try to squeeze permission to defer repairs until the next dry-docking," he said. "And when that time comes, he will try again to limit the extent of renewals."
Despite Sommervale's complaints, his view of the maritime industry remains optimistic. The company advocates modest, mostly voluntary reforms and stresses the industry's improving track record. "More ships are carrying more cargo more safely than at any time in history," Wade said. International shipping has a better safety record than the airline industry: Six billion tons of oil are carried on the ocean annually, he said, and 99.994 percent of it arrives safely.
Yet the amount of oil that doesn't make it to shore safely still totals 36 million tons, and for many people, that's 36 million tons too much.
In pondering where next year's 36 million tons of oil will spill, consider that a tanker just like the Prestige could dock in the Gulf of Mexico tomorrow. A loophole in the Oil Pollution Act allows ships such as the Prestige to moor at a deepwater port called LOOP, 18 miles south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, until 2015. Built in Japan in 1976, the Prestige became too old to trade in other U.S. ports after 2000 but visited harbors around the country until just a few years ago, racking up infractions along the way.