Shipping: Just Missing The Boat

Figuring out where the Prestige, a single-hull oil tanker that sank Nov. 19 off the northwest coast of Spain, originated isn't easy. The tanker was captained by a Greek, crewed by Filipinos and Romanians, owned by a Liberian-registered company, chartered by a Swiss-based Russian commodities trader and flew the Bahamian flag. Pinpointing what caused it to sink--and who's responsible--is even tougher. Fingers are pointing all over, but there is one thing that everybody agrees on: it could've been avoided. "The frustrating thing," says Michael Voogel, secretary of Paris MOU, an international shipping operation in the Netherlands, "is that we have the laws on paper that could have prevented this, but they don't come into effect until July." In 1999, when the Maltese oil tanker Erika split near Brittany and spread 20,000 tons of oil along the French coast, the European Union called for a number of stiff regulations, ultimately passing measures for increased, rigorous inspections of older vessels, additional monitoring of EU waters, even a "black list" of suspected substandard vessels. The Erika meas-ures, which take effect July 2003, will make Western Europe home to some of the world's toughest maritime laws. One measure eventually bans single-hull tankers from EU ports--starting in 2005. Therein lies part of the tragedy of the Prestige oil spill: it's a result of bad timing. As mandated by international law, the 26-year-old Prestige would have been permanently retired in '05 before it turned 30. And if the ship had sunk just one year later than it did, the money available for cleanup from the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage--which will be forking up to $180 million--would have been 50 percent more.