The making of an ecological disaster

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 25 06:57:22 MST 2002


Wall St. Journal, Nov. 25, 2002

OIL TROUBLE

The Making of a Disaster:
The Prestige's Last Hours

Lessons of the Past Sealed Oil Tanker's Fate
As Spain, Portugal, Fearing Spills, Sent It Away
By BHUSHAN BAHREE, CARLTA VITZTHUM and ERIK PORTANGER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The oil tanker Prestige was trailing an expanding slick of oil and its
badly fractured hull looked ready to rupture on Nov. 13. Then it came in
sight of a lighthouse that has been guiding ships to the sanctuary of La
Coruna Bay since the Roman Empire.

But sealing the badly damaged ship's fate, Spain refused to let a
salvage team bring the Prestige into the bay or to tow it through
Spanish waters to a port in Gibraltar. Portugal wouldn't allow the
tanker within its territorial waters, either. Both countries dispatched
navy warships to enforce their decisions, keeping the crippled Prestige
in the roughest channels of the Atlantic Ocean.

Battered by towering waves for more than 90 hours, the Prestige cracked
in half Nov. 19. It sank almost 12,000 feet and left a destructive trail
of at least three million gallons of Russian fuel oil.

With hindsight, it's clear that Spain and Portugal made disastrous
mistakes. If the Prestige had been taken to relatively calm waters close
to land four days before it sank, its cargo might have been safely
pumped into another vessel. The tanker might not have shattered and oil
might not still be washing up on more than 400 miles of beach in the
Spanish fishing region of Galicia, where the damage could run into the
hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Taking the boat out to sea increased the chance of disaster. But what
were they going to do? Bring all that sludge here? That wouldn't have
worked either," said Luisa Fernandez, a homemaker in La Coruna, as she
took shelter from the rain in a pub near the city's stone seawall late
last week. "Everything has been so badly done."

The Prestige's legacy is a bitter debate among shippers, politicians,
environmentalists and angry Spaniards, over what to do when a gravely
damaged tanker seeks help near land. There are strong motives --
economic, political and environmental -- for distrust on all sides.

Politicians want to avoid a spill in their backyards at all costs.
Salvage companies have years of experience dealing with damaged craft,
but they also stand to make a big score if they can retrieve most of the
oil. And even environmentalists debate the risks of a major spill close
to sensitive coastlines as opposed to out in the deep ocean waters.

The stakes are huge at a time when more oil and liquefied natural gas
than ever is transported by sea to satisfy the world's growing demand
for energy. Sunday, a tanker carrying 20,000 metric tons of liquefied
petroleum gas caught fire in Chinese waters east of Hong Kong, risking a
huge explosion, authorities said.

The disaster has sparked calls across Europe to move up the phasing out
of aging single-hull vessels, now expected to be banned by 2015. But
even modern tankers -- with two layers of hull to help prevent oil
spills -- can get into trouble in the international shipping lanes off
the Coast of Death -- the name sailors have given the shipwreck-prone,
jagged shores of northwestern Spain.

That is where the Prestige stalled two weeks after it left St.
Petersburg, Russia, where the 26-year-old tanker had been serving since
July as a makeshift oil-storage facility. After topping off its tanks in
Ventspils, Latvia, the Prestige, carrying fuel oil valued at $10
million, set off for Singapore. It navigated the Baltic Sea and passed
through the Denmark Straits before hitting the stormy Atlantic, where it
turned south.

The mayday flashed into a Spanish coast-guard station around noon on
Nov. 13. Gale-force winds had whipped up 20-foot waves and the Prestige
-- 27 miles out -- was listing at a 45-degree angle. Its steel hull had
cracked and big chunks of its plating had already begun to fall off,
something the salvagers would discover a few days later. It is still
unclear whether the ship struck something in the water or simply began
to succumb to old age and heavy seas. The ship's log hasn't been found.

Choppers took off to evacuate the crew of frightened Filipino and
Romanian sailors. In La Coruna, south of the Torre de Hercules
lighthouse built by the Romans in the Second Century, the Spanish diving
and salvage company Technosub International Inc. also moved fast,
calling its partner in Rotterdam, SMIT Salvage NV. The message: Contact
the tanker's owner and insurers and win the rescue contract. If the
ship, and its cargo, could be saved, SMIT and Technosub could make
millions of dollars.

Twirling in the Wind

Rescue helicopters lifted seven Prestige sailors to safety by 5:30 p.m.
Another 17 were soon out of harm's way, winched up -- twirling in the
wind as they were hoisted in harnesses dangling from the helicopter --
wrapped in blankets and ferried to shore. One sailor was so thankful he
gave a chopper pilot the stone amulet he had been carrying for good luck.

The tanker's Greek captain, first officer and chief mechanic stayed on
board. By the time the tugboat Ria de Vigo pulled up at 6:30 p.m., the
Prestige was surrounded by a slick more than a mile across. Fighting to
keep from being washed overboard, Ria de Vigo rescue workers tried to
attach cables so the tanker could be brought under control, but most of
the cables broke, snapped by the intense pressure of the waves.

That evening, in Rotterdam, SMIT officials learned they had the salvage
contract. Operators worked the phones, telling a five-member team to
catch the next flight out from Amsterdam. The Prestige, its engines
dead, continued to drift, coming within three miles of land.

When villagers in Muxia on the Spanish coast awoke on Nov. 14, they saw
the tanker on the horizon. "It was a horrifying scene. We went to bed
thinking the boat was 22 miles offshore and there it was right off our
beach. Everybody was terrified," said Ramon Perez Barrientos, the head
of civil defense in the fishing village of 7,000.

But the tugboats had succeeded in attaching tow lines to the tanker,
stopping its drift eastward. The Prestige was stable enough to allow
coast-guard technicians and an inspector from the harbor master's office
in La Coruna to helicopter out for an assessment. They found the steel
hull so severely damaged that the entire vessel was in jeopardy.

That convinced Jose Luis Lopez Sors, the director general of Spain's
merchant-marine service. He demanded the Prestige be towed at least 120
miles into the Atlantic off the Spanish coast, and he dispatched the
warship Cataluna to make sure his order was followed.

'More to It'

Geert Koffeman, SMIT's deputy chief executive, was in London at a
business meeting that morning when his cellphone rang. "Hey, listen,
there is more to it than a vessel adrift," Mr. Koffeman recalled Richard
van der Werf, a colleague at the head office in Rotterdam, telling him.

Mr. Koffeman had left his office overlooking Rotterdam's Maas River a
day earlier with just a briefcase. Now, learning that the ship was badly
damaged and that oil was already leaking, he grabbed a folding
toothbrush and a plastic razor and headed for Heathrow airport.

By 7 p.m., at about the time Mr. Koffeman's Iberia Airlines flight from
Barcelona touched down in La Coruna, the Prestige had been towed 25
miles out. In its wake, it left an oil slick 20 miles long and 200 yards
wide. France, Britain and the Netherlands sent antipollution equipment,
including nearly five miles of floating barriers, to help Spain contain
the mess.

In the La Coruna airport terminal, Mr. Koffeman saw SMIT's chief salvage
master, Wytse Huismans. Mr. Huismans and his team -- four others from
SMIT and five experts from Technosub -- were waiting to board a
search-and-rescue chopper that would ferry them to the Prestige so they
could check firsthand on the damage. They would be winched down from the
chopper, a heart-stopping operation in the best of conditions. The
chopper's takeoff was delayed by bad weather; 12-foot-high waves crashed
onto the seawall protecting La Coruna's city beach until midnight.

At 2 a.m. Nov. 15, the salvage experts dropped onto the Prestige's deck.
They called Mr. Koffeman, still awake at the hotel Ria Zor in La Coruna.
The situation was dire, they said, and the only hope was to bring the
Prestige into the relatively peaceful water of La Coruna Bay. There,
they believed the tanker might be saved, and its cargo pumped into
another vessel, both surrounded by protective booms to contain leaks. It
was an operation SMIT had performed many times before.

If the Prestige was forced farther out to sea, "I knew that the ship
would break up," said Mr. Koffeman, a 35-year veteran of the maritime
salvage business.

He set up a meeting at 11 a.m. with Spanish officials, including Mr.
Lopez Sors, the merchant-marine chief. He thought he would be able to
change their minds and get the Prestige into the bay. "We know the
Atlantic, we know the winter, we know tankers," he said.

But the Spaniards were unyielding and angry. Mr. Koffeman said they
wouldn't let him make the argument that a major oil spill might be
avoided if they let SMIT bring the Prestige in. "They only wanted one
thing; that we take the tanker far away," he said.

Spanish officials said there was no way Mr. Koffeman could have
persuaded them to accept the Prestige. Ten years before, the tanker
Aegean Sea had broken up on the rocks beneath the Torre de Hercules
lighthouse, spilling most of its 80,000 metric tons of crude oil onto La
Coruna's beaches and harbor. It took Galicia's fishing industry, which
provides 28,000 jobs for the region, one of the poorest in Europe, more
than five years to recover from the disaster.

The Prestige's spill posed even greater dangers to Galicia. The Prestige
was carrying fuel oil, which is far more detrimental to the environment
because of its high sulfur content. This fact hardened local officials
in their determination to keep the ship out of the port. If the Prestige
had ruptured in the bay, "it would have been the apocalypse," said
Galicia's fishing minister, Enrique Lopez Veiga.

The Spaniards also flatly rejected Mr. Koffeman's next request -- to let
SMIT tow the Prestige to Gibraltar, 617 miles away -- because to get
there, the Prestige would have to sail uncomfortably close to the
Spanish coast. Mr. Koffeman had no more luck with Portugal, which
declared its ports off limits, arguing that the badly leaking ship was
sure to cause damage to its coastline. SMIT ultimately decided to head
toward Cape Verde Islands off Senegal, 2,000 miles away, to an area of
the Atlantic often so calm it's known as the Doldrums.

But Mr. Koffeman held out little hope the Prestige would make it that
far. He knew SMIT's chances of making money from the Prestige job would
shrink with every mile the tanker moved out into the roiling Atlantic.
Oil-tanker rescue jobs are taken on spec, and if a ship and cargo aren't
salvaged, the owner and insurers only cover a salvage company's cost.

That's why countries such as Spain are suspicious of salvagers'
arguments. Despite pleas from salvage companies, most nations won't let
leaking oil tankers close to land. In January 2001, Spain and five other
countries famously refused to give haven to the tanker Castor, which had
a 20-yard crack in its deck and 30,000 metric tons of unleaded gasoline
in its hold. The Castor wandered the Mediterranean for more than five
weeks, until it was unloaded in a ship-to-ship transfer in the open seas
off Malta.

'For What?'

Assailed afterward by the shipping industry for rebuffing the Castor,
Mr. Lopez Sors was unrepentant. "The salvage company wants me to risk my
coast and my people in a highly touristic area and for what? For their
profits," he said in a television interview at the time.

Spain and the Castor were lucky; the tanker survived and it didn't leak.
With the Prestige, Spain hasn't been so fortunate. Criticism of its
sending the tanker out to sea has been harsh. Peter Swift, managing
director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners,
said Spain made a political decision that ended up "putting a whole
coastline at risk." Environmentalists complained that Spain and Portugal
never made unloading the fuel oil a priority. "There was a window of
opportunity that was lost," said Simon Carroll, Greenpeace's
representative to the International Maritime Organization, a United
Nations ship-safety body, "and it may have contributed to the breaking
up of the vessel."

Spain hasn't wavered in its defense of its decision, saying it avoided a
potentially greater problem by ushering the ship out to sea. "There's no
way that boat could have docked at a Spanish port," said an angry Jesus
Andreu, a spokesman for Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. "It was leaking
oil all over the place. What would have happened if it had broken in
half at port? It would have been a disaster!"

Spain's rejection sent the Prestige into nasty weather. At sunset on
Nov. 15, the tanker's captain, still on board, radioed the coast guard:
He and the remaining crew had to be evacuated, immediately. Buffeted by
high winds, helicopters lowered harnesses onto the deck to retrieve the
men. They were flown to the airport in La Coruna, where Spanish
authorities greeted the captain, Apostolos Maguras, by arresting him on
several charges, including causing damage to the environment.

Before they locked him up in the La Coruna jail, where he remains on
about $3 million bail, they said Capt. Maguras told them that he had
left the ship's log -- a sacrosanct document detailing a ship's every
move -- on the Prestige. Spanish officials didn't find it on board.

Early on Nov. 16, wind drove the Prestige slick over the floating
barriers laid out to keep it in check. Sticky oil washed up near La
Coruna and oil-coated birds began to stagger onto shore. A chunk of the
Prestige's deck plating, 40 yards tall and 10 yards wide, crashed into
the sea. The salvage team decided they should turn the tanker around and
tow it by the stern rather than the bow, so the severely damaged side
wouldn't face the most forceful waves.

Big Tug

To do that, the team called in one of the world's strongest ocean-going
tugboats, the De Da, owned by a salvage alliance to which SMIT belongs.
It chugged over from Gibraltar and hooked up to the tanker.

Then, shortly before midnight on Nov. 17, the Portuguese warship Joao
Coutinho approached, signaling explicit orders to the tugboats: They
were not to bring the Prestige within 200 miles of the Portuguese coast.
"We did what we had to do to keep a problem for which we had no
responsibility from coming to our shores," said Portuguese Defense
Minister Paulo Portas, defending the order before Portugal's parliament.

To comply, the flotilla had to change course and head due west, into
rougher seas. The Prestige was battered by fierce waves for another 30
hours. By 7:50 a.m. on Nov. 19, it began breaking apart.

Tugboats cut the ultra-light towing wire that had been flown in from
Rotterdam four days before. At 9:30 a.m., the tanker's two parts were at
45-degree angles. Fearful the fuel oil in the hold would pour out at any
moment, Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said the government
considered sending F-18 fighter jets to bomb the tanker and set it on
fire so the oil would be burned off, but the maneuver was deemed too risky.

At 4:15 p.m., the Prestige sank, 133 miles west of Spain and Portugal,
in an area rich in marine and bird life known as the Galicia Bank. Most
of the cargo for now has gone down to the ocean floor, where the fuel
oil probably solidified under intense pressure and in frigid temperatures.

Late Sunday night, the condition of the submerged cargo wasn't known --
although experts expect the tanks holding the oil to eventually rupture
and for the oil to again rise to the surface in warmer weather. Atop the
Atlantic, there were four main slicks that continued to move toward the
Spanish coast.


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