Europe’s worst oil spill: real culprits get off scot-free

November 25, 2013
The Prestige broken in two.

Eleven years to the day after the crew of the 80,000 tonne oil tanker Prestige heard the huge bang that marked the start of its break-up and of Europe’s most devastating oil spill, a high court panel in the Galician city of A Coruna delivered its verdict in the case on November 13.

Who was guilty of an environmental catastrophe when the tanker broke in two and spilled 63,000 tonnes of sticky, sulphurous fuel oil along 2900 kilometres of Spain’s and France’s Atlantic coast?

Who was responsible for the horrendous destruction of marine and bird life, the six-month suspension of economic activity in Galician fishing and seafood-gathering communities, and the clean-up and compensation costs reckoned by the prosecution at 4.338 billion euros?

Well, no one really, certainly not the three defendants sitting in the dock. In their judgment, the judges stated: “Nobody knows exactly the cause of what happened, nor what should have been the appropriate response in the emergency situation created by the Prestige’s serious breakdown.”

Moreover, from the viewpoint of criminal law, “malpractice, carelessness, unacceptable procedures [and] administrative and statutory violations” it did not amount to criminal responsibility.

That criterion was met in only one case: the Prestige’s captain Apostolos Mangouras was found guilty of “serious disobedience” towards the Spanish maritime authorities by dragging his heels when ordered to allow tugs to tow the crippled tanker away from the Galician coast. (The 78-year old seafarer is now too old to serve his nine-month jail sentence.)

However, the court also found Mangouros and the two other defendants, chief engineer Nikolaus Agyropoulos and former Spanish director-general of merchant shipping Jose Luis Lopez-Sors not guilty on the main charge of causing environmental damage.

Because no party was found guilty of environmental damage, no one was liable to pay any compensation and the 22,777,986 euros paid out to date by the Prestige’s insurer could be returned to it.

Absent defendants

The court’s refusal to assign criminal responsibility led to a wave of demonstrations in 15 Galician towns, called by the “Never Again!” (Nunca Mais) movement.

Nunca Mais organised the huge volunteer clean-up of Galicia’s foreshores in the wake of the 2002 sinking of the Prestige. Up to 20,000 volunteers from all over Spain took part in the extraordinary effort.

Nunca Mais has also led the campaign to bring those responsible to justice. The campaign has been marked by demonstrations of 200,000 in the Galician capital Santiago de Compostela and of 1 million in Madrid.

Juan Lopez de Uralde, spokesperson for the Green party Equo, said: “The court’s decision is absolutely scandalous. It is a kick in the teeth to all those people who went to help clean up the oil.”

Yet the court’s ruling was also understandable. Firstly, because expert witnesses disagreed as to the exact cause of the Prestige’s hull failure and the wisdom of the decision to send the ship as far offshore as possible.

Most importantly, however, none of the real culprits were sitting in the dock. This was so obvious that the chief judge, Juan Luis Pia, told a July 9 media briefing: “It’s obvious that there are more people involved in the disaster, culprits both political and non-political.”

These included the Spanish authorities responsible for the management of the crisis ― including now-People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ― and the executives of companies that owned and managed the Prestige.

Pia also complained that the Spanish state was both prosecutor and defendant in the case ― trying to nail Mangouros as the chief guilty party while avoiding a ruling against Lopez-Sors that would make it liable for clean-up costs.

For Pia, another “enormously harmful” problem was the failure of the Spanish government’s 2008 suit against the ship classification agency, the American Board of Shipping (ABS).

The ABS had certified the seaworthiness of the Prestige from its launch in 1976. It continued to renew its certificate, even though the tanker had been fined for serious lack of safety in New York and Rotterdam ports and rejected as a carrier by major oil companies.

The failure of a 2011 Spanish appeal against the US district court ruling that the ABS bore no responsibility for damages caused to Spain by the oil spill from the Prestige made it impossible to put the ABS or its inspectors on trial.

Nonetheless, the court’s judgement included the observation that surveys of the tanker by ABS inspectors “were not carried out with proper professionalism”.

If the court had been able to try the ABS, it would have heard some interesting material.

In 2001, a technical inspection of the Prestige in the Chinese port of Guangzhou concluded that 1000 tonnes of corroded steel in its petrol-tank bulkheads needed replacing. Universe Maritime, the ship’s Greek shipowners, succeeded in getting this figure lowered to 600 tonnes, whereupon the ABS itself cut the figure to 362 tonnes.

Ownership puzzle

What about the role of the Prestige’s actual owners, Universe Maritime, creature of the Greek Coulouthros shipping dynasty?

This outfit set up the supposedly independent company Mare Shipping Incorporated in the flag-of-convenience haven Liberia, where the Prestige was registered as Mare Shipping’s property. Mare Shipping then leased the vessel back to Universe Maritime as the tanker’s operator, who then had it re-registered in the Bahamas.

According to a management contract between Mare Shipping and Universe Maritime, since December 2000 thePrestige had been chartered to Crown Resources, a Russian oil trading outfit based in Switzerland. Its basic work was refuelling other ships at sea.

An International Transport Federation (ITF) of maritime unions report cited in the January 12, 2003 El Pais said: “Universe Maritime is a bottom-feeder [carrier of the worst cargoes] … with an old and dying fleet.”

ITF inspectors kept getting complaints about wages and conditions on the company’s ships.

In June 2002, Universe Maritime offered command of the Prestige to captain Efstrapios Kostazos, but he stayed with the ship only until completing a trip to Russia in September.

When promised spare parts never arrived, he left the Prestige, denouncing its state to the ship operator. Kostazos sent a fax to the ABS voicing his concerns and telling Mangouros that “the ship is very tired and could break up”.

When Universe Maritime’s operations manager Michail Marguetis said he was concerned about the state of the 26-year-old tanker, the reply was “not to worry about the Prestige. It will die [be scrapped] in Saint Petersburg.”

‘Send it to the back of beyond!’

Why did Mangouros resist Spanish maritime authorities when they ordered him to head the crippled Prestige seaward?

His concern was simple, and shared by the head of the Dutch salvage firm Smit Salvage, which Universe Maritime had contracted to try to save the Prestige. If the vessel was exposed to continuing storms it would break up, but if it could be brought into sheltered waters, it could be saved.

There would be an oil spillage to clean up, but nothing compared with one produced by a complete break-up.

When Spanish decision-makers, from the very top of the regional and national PP governments, ordered the stricken tanker seaward (“Send it to the back of beyond!” said Galicia’s minister for fisheries), they knew they were increasing the chance it would sink.

Smit Salvage head Green Koffeman told the Spanish authorities that tanker was in such fragile shape that it was bound to break apart if towed into the open sea.

At the same time, these authorities, coordinated by Rajoy, were telling the media that there was “no danger” from the Prestige and deliberately lowering the scale of the spill as calculated by their technical staff.

A retired ship’s captain living in Muxia on Galicia’s aptly named Coast of Death had the weird experience of hearing a radio broadcast explain that the danger of an oil spill had passed, just as the first waves of smelly sludge reached the local beach.

A representative of the Galician government even told the media that it didn’t even matter if the Prestige broke in two, both halves would still float and could be towed further away from the Spanish coast.

If they did eventually sink, it would be alright ― their cargo of fuel oil would set hard, “like candy”.

As for Rajoy, he was driven by one obsession ― to make sure sufficient compensation was paid on time to affected Galicians so that the PP’s voter base suffered as little damage as possible. Even as hopelessly inadequate resources were being sent to the wrong areas, his instruction was: “Tell them there’ll be plenty of nougat.”

Among this clowning, only the work of Nunca Mais and thousands of volunteers saved the coastline from total disaster.

On hearing the A Coruna decision, the environmental network Ecologists in Action said: “The greatest environmental catastrophe in the Spanish state and one of the most important in Europe, with environmental impacts as well as social and economic ones, has been settled by the Spanish judicial system with an empty sentence that fills us with indignation.”

The decision is already being appealed from the left (Nunca Mais), but also from the right (Galician and national governments) ― as well as by the French government.

The only people happy with it are the defendants, especially Mangouros. The captain's final address thanked the people of Galicia for their understanding and kindness during the 11 years in which the Spanish authorities tried to set him up as the scapegoat for the catastrophe they did so much to create.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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