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December 3, 2003

Euro MP's seek testimony from Prestige master

The European Parliament's new Temporary Committee on Improving Safety at Sea is demanding that the Spanish authorities authorize Captain Mangouras of the Prestige to appear before it.

Georg JARZEMBOWSKI (EPP-ED, D), who chairs the committee, said at its first working meeting yesterday that the captain must be allowed to tell MEPs what had happened when his ship sank off the Galician coast in November 2002. This would help the committee considerably in its work.

Since the disaster with the Prestige, the Greek captain has been under house arrest and has not been allowed to leave Spain. Mr Jarzembowski urged the Spanish government commissioner on the Prestige disaster, Francisco URIA FERNANDEZ, to take the necessary steps.

Mr Uria Fernandez, however, said the captain was the subject of a legal investigation and only a Spanish court could decide whether to allow him to travel. The committee will now contact the judge in charge of the case.

Mr Uria Fernández told MEPs that the decision not to allow the Prestige to enter a Galician port had been the right one and that the authorities would do the same if such a disaster were to happen again. EP rapporteur Dirk STERCKX (ELDR, B) voiced serious concern at this statement and referred to new EU legislation on ports of refuge, under which it was compulsory to bring a vessel in distress to such a port. The rapporteur also questioned the representative of the Spanish government about 21,000 tonnes of crude oil which was said still to be "missing" off the Galician coast.

The committee was told there were 77,000 tonnes on board of the Prestige when it sank, 42,000 tonnes had been recovered along the coastal areas and 14,000 tonnes were still in the tanker. "Consequently, there is some 20,000 tonnes missing. Where has this oil gone?" asked Mr Sterckx. According to the Spanish commissioner, however, there were only 60,000 tonnes on board the Prestige, of which the greater part had now been recovered while 14,000 tonnes were still in the vessel. There had been no signs recently that oil leaking from the ship was still polluting the coastal areas.

Steven CLINCH, representing the Bahamas Maritime Authority (the flag state of the Prestige) came under fire when questioned by MEPs on the role of a flag state. They asked Mr Clinch why, a year after the disaster and with the Bahaman authorities' final report on the Prestige soon to be published, the Bahamas had not sent any documentation to the Spanish authorities. They also asked how many older ships with badly trained crews the Bahamas had so far allowed to sail the world's seas.

Mr Clinch, who did not answer most of the questions, stated that the Bahamas were on the white list of flag states regarded as properly implementing international maritime agreements. Finally, he refused to give information on the contents of the report on the Prestige and announced that it would be published in the course of 2004.

The director of the new European Agency for Maritime Safety (EMSA), Mr Willem DE RUITER, told the committee that the EU maritime legislation which had recently come into force was having a worldwide impact. Under the port state control directive, EU inspectors were now able to check 25% of non-EU vessels at EU ports. The new directive on classification societies (inspection bodies) allowed EMSA officials to monitor these societies worldwide, from Honduras to Cambodia. Any infringements would be followed immediately by sanctions. EMSA would also investigate the standard of training levels and certificates for seamen in non-EU countries.

Some committee members called for a European coast guard to be set up but the EMSA director pointed out that this was even more complicated than the creation of an EU army, given the fact that some Member States had a coast guard and some did not. He shared MEPs' concern about the growing number of old single-hull Russian tankers transporting crude oil in non-open seas such as the Baltic and the Mediterranean, which could lead to major environmental disasters. The Commission would tackle this problem in due course, he said.

Raul GARCIA, representing the World Wildlife Fund, said it would take at least 10 to 20 years for the maritime environment to recover from the Prestige disaster. He asked for EU legislation to tackle the environmental problems in case there were another Prestige disaster. Representing the Spanish oil company Repsol, Ramon HERMAN, however, was confident that no more oil would leak from the vessel and that the salvage operation could start next year without any major problems. Lastly, according to Eduard LANDRAIN, chairman of the French Assembly's inquiry committee on maritime safety, only coordination, investment and technical equipment such as tugs and salvage vessels at EU level could prevent another maritime disaster of this kind

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