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March 20, 2003

Spain under fire at Prestige hearing
A Spanish government representative came under heavy fire when questioned by Members of the European Parliament (MEP's) at a Brussells hearing yesterday.
The hearing on safety at sea was held by the Parliament's Transport Committee in response to the Prestige accident.

Spanish Secretary of State Adolfo Menendez Menendez could not convince MEP's from most political groups that the Spanish authorities had done everything possible to prevent the sinking of the oil tanker.

These members vehemently criticized the decision not to allow the Prestige to sail to a Spanish port of refuge but to send it out to the open sea instead.

However, Spanish EPP-ED Members defended their government and the regional and local authorities, arguing that to give the Prestige shelter could have seriously damaged the maritime environment at the coast and the fishing industry as well.

Menendez Menendez said that Spanish as well as European authorities had acted effectively, in order firstly to save the lives of the crew.

Many practical measures had also been taken immediately to prevent and coordinate the fight against pollution, he said. Subsequently, a compensation package had been provided for the people most directly affected by the spill. He also said that experts had not indicated where along the Spanish coast the tanker could have found a place of refuge.

Several MEPs doubted whether the authorities had acted promptly enough. They asked who had given the order that the ship in distress should not be allowed to enter a Spanish port. However, the secretary of state referred to the official report published on the disaster by his government.

In a written statement, Captain Apostolos Mangouras, the Master of the Prestige, apologised that he could not appear before the Transport Committee as his bail conditions required him to remain in Spain.

He claimed that if the Spanish authorities had allowed his ship into a port of refuge, it would have survived and minimal pollution would have occurred, and then only in the port area.

"Refusing to do this and sending her out to sea with the engines running was obviously the worst thing they could do," he wrote. "This resulted in the widespread pollution that occurred and the loss of the ship and cargo. As a very experienced seafarer, refusal to allow the vessel into a port of refuge seems to me to put at risk the lives and efforts of those attempting to salve the ship and cargo and prevent pollution".

Hans van Rooij, managing director of Rotterdam-based Smit Salvage BV told the hearing that the decision by the authorities had been taken against his recommendations.

Smit Salvage had proposed to tow the Prestige to the port of La Coruna, but this was refused. Van Rooij said that it was generally known that the ship could not survive without a place of refuge. He also explained that the captain and the chief engineer had acted very professionally. There were strict orders from the authorities in La Coruna to stay 120 kilometres from the coast and not to sail to Gibraltar. The salvage company had protested vehemently, but with no result. He added that 50 years of experience were apparently not good enough.

The harbor master of La Coruna, Serafin Diaz Requiro, explained that he had boarded the Prestige on behalf of the Spanish authorities and ordered the captain and chief engineer to start the ship's engine immediately. He complained that the captain was reluctant to do this because of the danger of overstressing the already damaged hull by steaming into the bad weather. The harbor master stressed that coastal protection had been the only option. "I would not have dared to bring this ship into a port", he said.

Representing the ship's classification society, ABSpresident and COO, Robert Somerville assured the hearing that the Prestige had undergone all necessary inspections.

Repairs in China had been carried out adequately and the result of Port State Control inspections in the U.S. and Rotterdam had been positive. When questioned about the responsibilities of classification societies,

Somerville said what had happened to the Prestige was known, but we would never know what had caused it. He agreed with the other experts that the ship would not have survived after the decision not to allow it to enter a Spanish port.

Paul Hinton of the London Steamship Owners Insurance Organization took the view that the salvage company's experts were the most competent in this field and that the authorities should have listened to them.

On behalf of the Center of Logistics and Maritime Services (CELSEM) at the Technical University of Catalonia, Joan Zamora told MEPs that the management of the ship's salvage by the authorities had been highly unprofessional.

Professor Janvier del Moral Hernandez of the university of La Coruna was in favour of modern vessel design as the best contribution to improve maritime safety.

Earlier, Commissioner Loyola de Palacio had presented her report on the loss of the Prestige. She urged that it was essential that the measures proposed following the Erika and Prestige accidents were rapidly transposed into national legislation and put into practice. It had become clear that the existing international framework was no longer geared to the new maritime transport conditions and the increased risks to coastal states. It was now urgent to revise the international law of the sea in order to ensure greater protection for coastal states by revising the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The hearing continues today.

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