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Spain: Experts Say 'Prestige' Oil Spill Did Not Have To Happen

When the Maltese tanker "Erika" split in two in 1999, spilling large quantities of oil into the sea off France, European Union and other authorities rushed to consider laws and regulations to head off future such catastrophes. But last week, when the tanker "Prestige" broke in half off Spain, most of those measures had yet to take force. Insiders say the huge "Prestige" oil spill could have been avoided.

Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A tourist brochure for Spain's Galicia region is moved to poetry by the region's delights, saying: "At the western end of Europe there lies a green country facing the ocean. It is here the Greeks situated the end of the ancient world."

Last week, a disaster befell the coastline of that "green country." On 13 November, a storm cracked the hull of the 26-year-old tanker "Prestige," loaded to the gunnels with 70,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. The crack spilled 6,000 tons of oil into the sea, where it is wreaking havoc with a delicate environment that supports a 330-million-euro-a-year fisheries industry and a tourist-friendly coastline of beaches.

On 27 November, storms and lashing seas finished the job. They sent the "Prestige" sinking 3,500 meters down to the ocean floor 130 nautical miles off Spain's coast, still carrying at least 60,000 tons of her viscous cargo.

The fuel already spilled has created a slick that has soiled 300 kilometers of coastline and threatens priceless stocks of wild and farm-raised seafoods. The mishap -- coming as it has after the Maltese tanker "Erika" broke up off the coast of France in 1999 -- has launched a new debate over how to protect the environment from a growing threat of supertanker spills. It also has launched a spate of finger-pointing over why more hasn't already been accomplished.

The WWF conservation organization (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) has sent specialists to the region to monitor the disaster. Peter Bryant, spokesman for the WWF Endangered Seas Program, says the damage may still be spreading, perhaps toward neighboring Portugal: "As we understand it, the oil has now split up into seven different slicks, all of which are varying distances from the coastline. The winds have shifted to a southwesterly position and it appears that there could be more impacts a little bit further south at this point."

Looking ahead, the WWF notes that -- even within the characteristically shrouded documentation of the international maritime industry -- immediate responsibility for the mess is remarkably uncertain.

"Yeah, it seems to be a tangled web, the responsibility for this particular boat. It's operated by an Athens-based company, Laurel Sea Transport. It is owned through a Liberian single-ship company. And it was flying a Bahamas flag, and carrying oil from a trading house in Switzerland," Bryant says.

At the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, Gilles Gantelet is spokesman on transport and energy. He says that the commission proposed measures more than two years ago that would have avoided the "Prestige" crisis if only EU member nations had acted on them promptly: "So we are calling [on] some of the states not to wait for the deadlines they have given to themselves, but to anticipate and accelerate the legislation, including the legislation that would have avoided such a disaster."

Speaking for the commission, Gantelet says in effect, "We told you so": "It's not sufficient to make new legislation. We can advance 20 more legislations, but the real problem we face today is the right application and the good application we have pushed after the 'Erika' disaster."

He also says, in effect, "Don't blame us": "We cannot accept that governments take the European Commission as a scapegoat. Because, right now, if, for instance, the right controls would have been made in the EU ports where this boat entered or called at in the last years, it could have been controlled."

Protective rules waiting to take force are regulations to increase frequency and intensity of inspections for old vessels like the "Prestige," changes in registration requirements to clarify the actual owners and operators of vessels in international commerce, and laws to drive single-hull tankers from the seas. U.S. and EU regulations call for the last single-hull tankers to decommission by 2015, to be replaced by double-hulled vessels.

Still, the WWF has developed one new proposal that the European Commission's Gantelet says his organization undoubtedly will support. Bryant of the WWF's Endangered Seas Program describes it: "The first is to do analysis to identify areas particularly sensitive and vulnerable to shipping. And then immediately designating, through the International Maritime Organization, those sites that qualify as particularly sensitive marine areas."

Bryant says such areas then could be protected promptly by especially strict laws and regulations that might be impractical for immediate use in all the world's sea lanes and ports at once.