Ship Wrecked

A Houston firm certified the oil tanker Prestige as good to go. It broke apart in the Atlantic, causing the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

Between 1984 and 1999, the Prestige visited U.S. ports a minimum of 27 times. It docked in Houston and Galveston twice. It moored in Corpus Christi, where it was fined in 1993 for dumping plastic garbage into the ocean and failing to install scuppers, which prevent leaks during oil transfers. It spilled so much oil that authorities required the captain to pay a $10,000 deposit to cover pollution claims. A year later, the Prestige entered the Port of Guayanilla in Puerto Rico without a working radar. It was cited there the next year because the emergency shutdown function on an oil pump was broken. And two years later, near a precarious stretch of Mississippi river channels, the Prestige lost its starboard anchor.

U.S. inspectors may have found so many problems with the Prestige because an ABS surveyor had missed them. But they also could have been overlooked by an inspector with the Bahamas Maritime Authority. The Bahamas was the Prestige's "flag state." Every ship must fly the flag of a nation and abide by that nation's laws. But some flags enforce tougher rules than others. The Bahamian flag is one of more than two dozen cited by the International Transport Federation as particularly weak. Critics of the shipping industry call them "flags of convenience." Although flags of convenience presided over nearly a quarter of the world's fleet in 2001, they accounted for more than half of the losses at sea.

Hundreds of ships fly the Bahamian flag. But the maritime authority's office in the Bahamas, which occupies the same building as The Essence Hair and Nail Salon and a duty-free liquor store, has only four employees. Captain Glenward Bain, the only ship inspector on staff in the Bahamas, explained that most of the office's other employees long ago relocated to Great Britain. Only the London office had the authority to answer questions about the Prestige, he said. But he offered a seat on a couch and a thought on why ship owners choose to register in his country. "We have a very good legislative framework as far as marine laws are involved," he said, chewing on a piece of gum.

The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
AP/Armando Franca
The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
Aid workers spent months cleaning up Spanish beaches. The European Union pegged cleanup costs for the region at $5 billion.
Dino Fraccia
Aid workers spent months cleaning up Spanish beaches. The European Union pegged cleanup costs for the region at $5 billion.

John Sansome, until recently the director of the ITF Flags of Convenience office in Washington, D.C., put it a bit differently: "These people have so much leeway in circumventing laws," he said. "It's just pathetic."

Besides the Bahamas, ABS and the occasional inspector from a country such as the United States, nobody was looking out for the safety of the Prestige. Crown Resources, the company that chartered the ship, had little reason to care if it sank. Oil traders typically insure their cargoes for 110 percent of their value, which means Crown probably netted $1 million in profit after the Prestige went down. Greek-controlled Mare Shipping, the owner of the Prestige, was similarly shielded from liability. Mare is registered as a corporation in war-torn Liberia, where looters and troops gutted most government buildings last year in an uprising against the country's dictator. Even if Mare could be brought to court, it would scarcely matter. Its only asset was the Prestige.

"Ships aren't the same as they used to be," Linkester said. "There's not the nice, neat owner of the ship and a crew that works on that ship all the time. Nowadays, there are all sorts of people who have a diffuse interest in the ship, and the result is a fragmentation of responsibility."

Dopico long ago stopped believing that the fishermen of A Coruña could count on anyone to protect them from a spill like the Prestige. He was a young man when a tanker called the Urquiola belched 110,000 tons of oil into the town's port and halted fishing for three months. Another tanker dumped 66,000 tons of petroleum nearby just three years later. And in 1992, the Aegean Sea cracked and leaked 88,000 tons' worth of flaming oil as far as the estuary near his home. "The smoke stained our houses," he said, "and we had to dislodge the people who died, asphyxiated."

Ten years later, fishing had just recovered in A Coruña when the Prestige unleashed its toxic tide. The oil spread beyond the town's beaches, as far north as the Bordeaux region of France. Tens of thousands of sea birds died. Laura Garcia Petero, a student in A Coruña who volunteered to rescue wildlife, said the oil was so thick that her work involved a lot of guessing. "We didn't know what was just oil and what was a bird," she said. "Everything was so desolate, and all of the life on the beach was so destroyed, that to look for them we had to rely on impressions."

The environmental damage devastated the Galician economy. Galicia's waters teem with sought-after sea creatures ranging from goose barnacles to spider crabs and support the largest fishing fleet in Europe. The spill grounded fishermen for months along the province's entire Atlantic coast -- directly or indirectly affecting more than 100,000 workers. Xoan Ramon Doldan Garcia, a fisheries economist at Galicia's University of Santiago de Compostela, estimates the fishing industry will require a decade to recover. The European Union pegged cleanup costs at $5 billion.

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