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April 6, 2004

European Parliament panel slams Spain

The Spanish authorities were criticized yesterday by the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Improving Safety at Sea. It also called for the establishment of a European Coast Guard.

The criticisms were directed atdecisions taken before, during and after the disaster of the oil tanker Prestige, which sank off the Galician coast on November 19, 2002. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) condemned the decision to tow the vessel away from the coast and the Spanish authorities' statement that they would take the same action again.

They also deplored the fact that the master of the Prestige, Captain Apostolas Mangouras, is not being allowed to leave Spain pending his trial. And they queried the amount of heavy oil still left in Galician waters after the disaster.

Following the Prestige disaster, the European Parliament decided to set up a temporary committee to investigate this incident and other disasters at sea, including the wreck of the Erika off the coast of Brittany on December 12, 1999. The committee reached its final conclusions Monday when it adopted a report by Dirk STERCKX (ELDR, B) by 25 votes to 1 with 16 abstentions. The committee had held three public hearings with maritime experts as well as talks with the European Commission, the Irish Presidency, Spanish government representatives and the Spanish government commissioner responsible for the Prestige case. MEPs also conducted an interview with Prestige captain Apostoulos Mangouras.

In its conclusions, the committee deplores the decision taken by the Spanish authorities to tow the vessel away from the Galician coast. It voices concern at the statement by a Spanish government commissioner that if an identical disaster were to happen the same decision would be taken again. Although the sealing operation to stop oil leaking from the wreck of the Prestige and the specific plans for making the wreck safe are welcomed, the committee calls on the competent authorities to continue their efforts to tackle the problem of the oil still present in the sea and the thousands of tonnes of waste in landfills. MEPs say the authorities should put forward a detailed calendar for the extraction and the treatment of the waste. They also urge that the expertise gained in the process be made widely available and used in tackling any further accidents.

It is still completely unclear how much oil remains in the coastal waters of Galicia. Before the disaster, there were 77,000 tonnes of heavy oil on board the Prestige. It is estimated that 14,000 tonnes remain, some 43,000 tonnes having been washed up and/or cleaned up, according to the Spanish authorities' statistics. This still leaves 20,000 tonnes unaccounted for. MEPs voice deep concern in their report that these 20,000 tonnes could still be a threat to the marine environment and the coast. Moreover, the captain estimated that 2,000-3,000 tonnes of fuel were shed immediately after the initial damage to the Prestige, whereas the estimate of the Spanish authorities was that approximately 10.000 tonnes were lost.

The committee calls on the Spanish judicial authorities to allow Captain Mangouras to return to his country pending his trial, to relax the requirement that he report daily to the authorities and to clarify as soon as possible the starting date and timetable for the legal case against him. A delegation of the committee went to Barcelona in February to meet the captain, as he was not given permission to appear before Parliament at a public hearing.

Among other recommendations, the committee calls on Member States to set up a European coastguard service with the powers to ensure:

  • maritime safety and the protection of the marine environment (including fisheries, piracy, maritime crime and terrorism);
  • the strict monitoring of adherence to certain shipping routes and the prosecution of the illegal entry of vessels
  • ;

  • swift coordination of measures in the event of an accident at sea, including the assignment of emergency moorings and ports
  • .

Further recommendations by the committee include a call for more powers for the European Agency for Maritime Safety, improved working conditions and safety for seafarers and better protection of the Baltic waters, given that many Russian oil tankers do not meet EU safety standards. MEPs also propose equipping dangerous goods containers with electronic transponders, as these containers could then be easily found in a sunken vessel.

Rapporteur Dirk STERCKX said the compromises reached had been arrived at in a realistic atmosphere, given that the temporary committee had been given a delicate task. He emphasised that the refusal to allow the Prestige captain to leave Spain would be likely to discourage young people from considering a professional career at sea. And there was a real need for able seamen, given that 80% of maritime accidents are caused by human error.

Committee chairman Georg JARZEMBOWSKI (EPP-ED, D) said the committee had done a very good job, which would send an important signal to all parties involved with maritime safety. The time was now ripe to turn all the committee's recommendations into EU legislation, to cover not only European but also international waters.

The committee's recommendations will now be put to the vote by the full Parliament at the plenary session of April 19-22 in Strasbourg

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