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Lithuania: Tanker Incident Puts Safety Of Baltic Ports In Doubt

A Panamanian-registered tanker carrying nearly 50,000 of oil yesterday lost control and ran aground in Lithuania's port of Klaipeda. Lithuania has large oil-refining capabilities and is importing and exporting oil through its terminals on the Baltic Sea. Yesterday's incident raises questions over whether Lithuania's oil infrastructure is sufficiently safe.

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Panamanian registered tanker "Princess Pia" carrying 50,000 tons of Russian fuel oil ran aground yesterday just outside the Lithuanian Baltic port of Klaipeda. The tanker was reportedly en route to Singapore.

No oil was spilled in the incident, and so far there are no plans to evacuate the tanker's 21-member crew. But Lithuanian officials say plans to tow the "Princess Pia" to safety may be affected by weather conditions.

Klaipeda officials says the tanker is due to be towed into port tomorrow, and admit there is some risk of winds carrying ice floes into the vicinity. Viktoras Lukosevicius, a senior port official supervising the rescue operation, told RFE/RL he believes the wind will not prevent the rescue operation from proceeding smoothly: "We plan to tow the ship tomorrow because we still need to unload it."

But while port officials downplay any potential danger, Gediminas Markauskas, the country's chief environmental inspector, says winds are due pick up overnight and might wreak havoc with the grounded tanker: "Forecasts are that weather conditions will change tomorrow in the morning or today late at night. We're not saying that something will happen, but it would be untrue to say that there is no danger at all. We have an incident -- the tanker has run aground and it contains oil."

Markauskas says rescue operations are in full swing. A Lithuanian tanker is already pumping oil from the "Princess Pia" and will soon be joined by a second vessel from Denmark.

The cause of the accident is unclear, but the environmental inspector says there is one bright spot in the story. The "Princess Pia," owned by the Argentinian company Boldwin Maritime and sailing under the Panamanian flag, is double-hulled -- unlike the 26-year-old "Prestige," which last month cracked in half off Spain's Galicia coast, spilling some 77,000 tons of oil into the sea and polluting hundreds of kilometers of pristine coastline. Markauskas says yesterday's accident left the tanker with a small hole in the outer hull but that the inner hull remains intact.

But not all tankers coming to Lithuania's two Baltic Sea ports are double-hulled. Lithuania, an active exporter of Russian oil, sees some 400,000 tons of oil pass each week through Klaipeda and an onshore terminal in Butinge. Is Lithuania's oil-exporting infrastructure safe?

Lithuanian Environmental Minister Arunas Kundrotas doesn't think so. "No. It doesn't seem to be safe enough and probably we will never find ourselves in a situation when we will be able to sleep peacefully. There are always factors that can make a safe terminal unsafe."

Elements as varied as human error, bad weather, and improper use of terminal facilities can all lead to potentially disastrous oil-terminal accidents.

Natalya Oliferenko of Greenpeace Russia agrees. She says severe environmental accidents cannot be predicted: "Experience shows that there is no company that is able to guarantee 100-percent safety. You should remember that the climate is changing, and we may be encountering gales [in the Baltic Sea] as we've never seen before."

Klaipeda was the site of one of the Baltic Sea's worst tanker accidents in 1981, when a 170-meter-long British tanker, the "Globe Asimi," broke in two after smashing into the port during a storm. More than 16,000 tons of oil leaked into the Baltic Sea and nearly 80 kilometers of the seacoast were polluted.

The Klaipeda port is poorly equipped to protect ships during very strong storms, and during severe weather the port orders resting vessels to return to the open sea, the Baltic News Service reported.

Any serious accident in the Klaipeda port might seriously endanger the bordering Curonian Spit, a territory on UNESCO's World Heritage list.