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Paul Bird
Posted on Saturday, October 27, 2001 - 04:40 pm:   

Paying up for dirty tankers

Jonathan Wills
Guardian

Tuesday November 21, 2000


In the bars and conference halls of Brest, in Brittany, Europe's coastal regions earlier this month debated improvements to tankers, crews, ship managers and oil spill insurance, following the Erika fuel oil spill that devastated southern Brittany and the Loire coast 10 months ago. There was even more indignation than usual because an Italian chemical tanker, the Ievoli Sun, had just foundered off Normandy. Several thousand tonnes of styrene were leaking into the sea.

Oil pollution conferences have become big business since Torrey Canyon (1967) and Amoco Cadiz (1978) first stirred public concern. The 150 experts, politicians, lobbyists and journos at the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions in Brest must have spent about £75,000 on trains, planes, hire cars, hotels and seafood restaurants. There's an event like this, somewhere, every month. Each disaster spawns new conferences and nudges politicians nearer to action. The problem really is political, not technical.

We knew, long before the Exxon Valdez gashed her single-skinned hull on a rock in Alaska (1989), that double-skinned hulls massively reduce the amount of oil spilled in groundings and collisions. Only now, 10 years after the US Oil Pollution Act began phasing out single-hulled ships, is Europe following America's example.

We have known for 50 years how to track ships by radar and for 20 how to identify them, using radio to read their satellite bleepers, or transponders. France is beefing up its coastal radars but, away from the Channel coast, most British coastguards still do not have radar. Even when tanker transponders become compulsory in 2002, it is not clear how the British government will use the information. Will it be like air traffic control, or a vessel traffic advisory service?

A survey last year showed half the tankers using the Pentland firth did not report to the Orkney coastguard station (now being closed down). Some were not keeping a radio watch. Britain will not interfere with the "right of innocent passage" of foreign ships but some passages are anything but innocent.

Estimates of substandard ships range from 10% to 20% of the world tanker fleet. These tubs must keep sailing until new tankers are built because, if we enforced even existing minimum legal standards, big blokes with small brains wouldn't need to picket refineries. There would not be enough oil to refine.

The French government is using its presidency of the EU to promote reforms bogged down for years in the International Maritime Organisation (where the majority are flag-of-convenience states). One priority is training more marine surveyors to inspect tankers and detain those found wanting. Staff shortages mean fewer than a quarter of ships visiting European ports are checked.

In Brest, speakers from Shetland to Crete agreed the shopping list of improvements. And there was a new proposal that could make this conference worth the money: tankers should carry all-risks insurance.

Hauliers driving road tankers in M1 protest convoys must have policies covering all risks to third parties. Not so the shipowner sending a tanker to sea with hull plating 25% rusted through (Nakhodka, 1998, sea of Japan), with a dodgy power plant (Braer, 1993, Shetland) or whose skipper throws caution to a force-nine gale and hits rocks in the harbour entrance (Aegean Sea, 1992, Galicia).

Shipowners rarely have adequate insurance. When there's a big spill like the Braer (£120m-plus), a committee of 15 maritime nations levies the oil companies, not the shipowners, to pay for the damage. That would be dandy if this International Oilspill Compensation Fund could meet all costs and pay up immediately. Too often, it can't. Some Spanish claimants are still waiting for cash from the Aegean Sea, eight years after the disaster. It's the same with the Braer in Shetland, and it took 18 years for Amoco Cadiz victims to win partial compensation.

All-risks insurance would make shipowners fully responsible for their actions and be more effective than reams of Euro-regulations. High premiums would deter owners from loading rustbuckets, or insurers from covering them. Shipowners could charge oil companies higher freights and thus afford better ships and crews.

The Brest manifesto also says Europe should follow America and make polluters pay the real costs of spills, such as longer-term effects on fish prices, hotel bookings and damage to wildlife. So the price of juice is too low. It's nothing to do with global warming, but a penny on a gallon of fuel would pay for safer tankers, less likely to spill oil in the ocean.

Jonathan Wills is a Shetland wildlife guide, writer and researcher

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