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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 12:34 GMT
Complex row over sunken tanker
Prestige sinking
The sunken tanker could spill more oil

The Spanish, Portuguese, French and British Governments and the European Union (EU) are involved in a complex row over the tanker that sank off Spain.

They are in disagreement over a series of major issues:

  • Responsibility for salvage operations.
  • The decision to tow the ship out to sea.
  • The enforcement of EU tanker regulations.
  • The inspection of tankers.
  • The role of Gibraltar

Responsibility for salvage

As the extent of damage to the ship became clear and oil began to leak out, the French, Spanish and Portuguese Governments refused to allow it to dock in their ports.

It was towed out to sea.

The tanker moved through Spanish towards Portuguese waters.

Enlarge image
Enlarge image

Spain said that it was not responsible for salvage operations as the tanker had entered Portuguese waters by Tuesday, just before it broke up and sank.

But the Portuguese Prime Minister, Jose Durao Barroso, said he was "absolutely sure" from information supplied by the Portuguese navy that the ship was in Spanish waters.

Portugal's Secretary of State for Defence, Henrique Freitas, confused things by saying that the tanker was in an area where Portugal was responsible for air-sea rescue but not salvage operations, according to the Associated Press news agency

The towing row

The decision to tow the tanker to sea is controversial.

This followed Spain's decision not to allow the tanker to dock at its ports.

The stricken tanker
The ship broke apart and sank

The Chief Executive of Smit Salvage, the Dutch company which tried to save the ship, told the BBC that the ship should not have been moved.

"The structural damage was certainly not improved by the five days of towing... we would have been better off in a sheltered area, in which the damage would not have increased and we could have had much easier and rapid control of the vessel," Hans van Rooy said.

Defending the Spanish decision to tow the ship to sea, Deputy Prime Minister Mariano Roy said his government had been scrupulous in meeting its obligations and had "avoided a much greater catastrophe".

This view has came under attack from the Barcelona newspaper El Periodico on Wednesday:

"The decision was taken to tow the boat out to the deep blue yonder, following the well-known practice of cleaners who brush dust under the carpet... Was the aim to share the risk with Portugal, as if the environment were a national and not a planetary asset?"

The EU, inspections and Gibraltar

Of longer term concern is the enforcement of EU regulations on phasing out single-hulled tankers like the Prestige.

President Chirac of France attacked "the inability of both national and European political officials" to implement EU regulations to prevent the use of "these floating rust buckets".

Barriers being set up
Protective barriers have been put up

He called for draconian action to prevent further disasters.

His views were supported by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which regretted the "powerlessness of European authorities to stop the strategies used by the oil companies and ship owners to get round the rules on safety".

Linked to the EU regulations on single-hulled vessels has been the argument over inspections.

At first it was said that the Prestige had not been inspected since 1999 and that an inspection should have been carried out in Gibraltar when it stopped there in 2001.

The American Bureau of Shipping then said that the ship had been inspected in China in May 2001, Dubai in May 2002 and its certificates had been inspected in Russia this year.

Spanish television on 19 November repeated the allegation that the Prestige was bound for Gibraltar and that it had stopped there on previous voyages. It added that tankers carried out the "illegal practice" of transferring fuel between ships at sea while docked off Gibraltar.

The British Government says the Prestige was not due to dock in Gibraltar.

Gustavo de Aristigui of the Spanish foreign ministry
"Tugboats managed to tow the ship as far away as possible"
Spain's coast and maritime fauna are threatened by the oil spill from the break-up of the Prestige

Key stories



See also:

20 Nov 02 | Europe
11 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
23 Mar 99 | Americas
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