The making of an ecological disaster
ianw at foe.co.uk
Mon Nov 25 06:59:37 MST 2002
Thanks a lot. Good article - but not enough background on who owned what. That's
where it really gets interesting in my opinion!
Louis Proyect wrote:
> 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.
> The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org
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