Prestige oil spill

Nov 16, 2012, 7:00AM EST
Prestige oil spill
A major oil spill with significant consequences

 On 13 November 2002, while carrying a cargo of 77,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil from St. Petersburg, Russia and Ventspils, Latvia to Singapore, the Aframax tanker Prestige encountered heavy weather off the northwest coast of Spain.  The tanker suffered structural failures and developed a substantial starboard list.  A distress call was made to Spanish authorities.  The majority of the crew was evacuated by helicopter and Spanish government officials came on board to enforce various orders.  The Prestige was taken under tow and moved south and then west.  Meanwhile, the tanker suffered buckling of the main deck and loss of some hull plating.  Oil leaked from the cargo tanks into the ocean.  Everyone was finally evacuated from the Prestige, which broke in two and sank on 19 November.  There is a wide variation in the estimates of oil spilled during the casualty and sinking, ranging from three to twenty million gallons.  Much of that oil, though, came ashore on the coasts of Spain, Portugal, and (to a lesser extent) France.  Government personnel and thousands of volunteers worked to clean up the shoreline.  Commercial fishing and shellfish areas were heavily impacted, as were several nature preserves.  After several years, it became apparent that much oil was still in the wreck of the Prestige on the ocean floor.  Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were sent down to remove the recoverable oil and seal the hull to minimize discharges from oil that could not be recovered.  In the aftermath, the European Union tightened its marine environmental protection regulations and pressed the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to take action.  The phase-out dates for single-hull oil tankers were accelerated and restrictions were placed on the carriage of heavy fuel oil as cargo in single-hull tankers.  In a major miscarriage of justice, the master of the Prestige was arrested and held in Spain for an inordinate period on charges of impeding the movement of the tanker during the crisis.  The Kingdom of Spain brought suit against the American Bureau of Shipping for negligent classification of the tanker.  The suit was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.  The criminal trial in Spain of the master and various others has only now commenced in Spain.  The saga continues.  

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Steve Toby
Shortly after Christmas, about 400 miles west of the English Channel in the North Atlantic, the American freighter Flying Enterprise was hit by a violent storm. A crack opened in the deck and the cargo shifted, causing a 45-degree list. A distress message was sent and nearby ships took off everyone but the captain, Kurt Carlsen. When a salvage tug arrived on January 3, the captain struggled unsuccessfully to secure a towline for two days. Recognizing that one man couldn’t haul the heavy towline into position to secure it, the tug’s captain managed to put his mate onto the crippled ship. A towline was secured on Jan. 5, and the tug began to tow the ship towards Falmouth, UK, the nearest harbor. But on January 8 another gale hit the ships. The towline parted on Jan. 9, and the next day, January 10, 1952, the two men abandoned the ship, which vanished beneath the waves only 42 miles from Falmouth. Danish-born Captain Carlsen came home to a hero’s welcome, a ticker tape parade in New York and decorations from Lloyd’s of London and the King of Denmark.
Over 50 years later, on Nov. 13, 2002, the tanker Prestige, Liberian owned, Greek managed, and registered under the Bahamian flag, was laboring in 25-foot high waves off Cape Finisterre on the Spanish Atlantic coast. The crew reported a loud noise, and the ship listed over to 25 degrees. A distress message was sent, and Spain’s rescue service responded promptly, evacuating 24 of the 27 people in the crew, mostly Filipino and Romanian nationals. The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, the chief mate, and the chief engineer remained on board. They counterflooded two empty ballast tanks to remove the list.
With additional men delivered by helicopter, towlines were connected and the next day tugs began towing the ship away from shore. The Spanish government had ordered the ship to be towed away from shore to avoid having an oil spill foul the nearby coast. The ship was only 25 miles from shore at the time of the accident.

Spain’s officials ordered that Prestige’s engines be restarted to help get the ship to sea faster. Captain Mangouras replied that this would overstress the hull. He requested permission to move the ship into sheltered waters so that temporary repairs could be effected. Spain refused, insisting on having the ship at least 60 miles from shore. The crew complied.
On November 19, 2002, about 70 miles at sea, Prestige broke in two and sank.
The contrast between the two events, outwardly so similar, could hardly be greater. In both cases, ship operators struggled heroically to save their ships and just barely failed. But the way the two captains were treated shows how far the maritime culture and traditions (and, yes, the prestige of sea captains) have fallen from the high position they held not so very long ago.

Governments are all too ready to pass more laws restricting shipping, in an attempt to reduce environmental impact and increase public and crew safety. When a winter storm lashes the Atlantic into a frenzy, however, none of these regulatory changes matter. Storm-damaged ships will still be driven in distress towards whatever coast is nearest. Insisting that they must be wrecked somewhere else is a contemptible act of moral cowardice. Spain’s involvement in this element of the accident chain differs from the others because it was so unnecessary.
11/20/2012 12:54:03 PM
Dennis Bryant
Well said!
11/21/2012 4:23:45 PM
George Livingstone

Relieved to see online media keeping this issue alive. My question is should the IMO reconsider the question of "Ports of Refuge"? Until they do it remains a clear and present danger; never minding the travesty of justice against the Master which should have all involved marine transportation gravely concerned.
12/6/2012 10:41:10 AM