Human Behavior Key to Preventing Oil Spills at Sea

BRUSSELS, Belgium, February 19, 2004 (ENS) - The European Union's response to recent maritime disasters had missed the key point - the human factor, the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Safety at Sea was told on Wednesday.

Eduardo Chagas, of the Maritime Transport Section of the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF), told the committee that the prime causes of tanker casualties like the "Prestige" oil spill off the Galician coast of Spain in November 2002, and the "Erika" spill off the Brittany coast of France in December 1999, were not structural but human.

The European Union has responded by passing laws that ban the transport of heavy oils in single hull vessels, phase out single hull tankers entirely, and impose a set of restrictions on all tankers based on the age of the vessels.

Grounding and collisions, situations closely related to human behavior, accounted for almost 50 percent of incidents, while only around 11 percent were related to hull failure, Chagas told the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). He urged that human conditions in the maritime sector should be taken more seriously, especially in EU legislation.

Flags of convenience and false certificates for merchant navy officers were the issues that most needed to be tackled, Chagas said.

The union representative told the astonished lawmakers that one of his colleagues had managed to "buy" an official captain's certificate in Panama by just sending a fax with some personal data and paying a certain amount of money.

Chagas also expressed concern about the tendency to criminalize seafarers such as the master of the oil tanker "Prestige," which sank off the Spanish coast on November 19, 2002.

More than a year later, Captain Apostolos Mangouras is still under detention in Spain, held against a bail of three million euros, and Chagas says that is wrong.

"We believe this case provides another example of masters and officers becoming a convenient scapegoat for an accident in the absence of other accessible parties and has highlighted once again the need for internationally agreed measures to protect seafarers from unjust criminalization," said Chagas.

For thousands of today's international seafarers life at sea is "a modern form of slavery" and their workplace is "a slave ship."

The debate generated by the "Prestige" is in grave danger of missing the key point, said the ETF representative, that it pays to run a substandard ship.

Chagas urged MEPs to press the Commission to take account of human element issues when drafting the "Erika III package" announced for this year. The Erika sank off the French Atlantic coast, spreading 15,000 tons of oil along the coast of southern Brittany during the winter of 1999. A report issued by the European Union blamed the poor condition of the ship for the spill, but Chagas said humans were also responsible.

Two Spanish professors, Fernando Gonzalez Laxe of the University of La Coruna and Juan Zamora Terres of the Technical University of Catalonia, gave their view on the disaster with the "Prestige" off the Galician coast.

Laxe told MEPs that 50 percent of ships on the world's oceans today are sailing under a flag of convenience, 70 percent of oil tankers still are single-hull tankers and about 40 percent of vessels are more than 20 years old. It was of great importance that practice of buying a ship and using it for a short period should be stopped.

Chagas agreed. There are many "free riders" running vessels all over the world, he said, therefore, the role of flag states should come under the spotlight, as many flag states do not even enforce minimum international standards.

Terres called on the European Union and the Member States to make their maritime administration more professional, so that the system of flags of convenience could finally be stopped.

Professor P.K. Mukherjee of the Malmo World Maritime University also told the panel that the human factor in maritime safety and environmental protection is vital.

At the center of global concern over maritime safety and environmental protection is the human element in all its facets, Mukherjee said, urging "serious review" of the status of the seafaring profession at all levels and in all parts of the world including Europe.

A range of other experts appeared before the committee. Speaking for the French shipowners' organization Armateurs de France, Edouard Berlet said French shipowners have adopted a Blue Charter aimed at improving maritime safety on a voluntary basis.

The same message came from Jan Koperniecki, chairman of the Oil Companies International Maritime Forum. He claimed his organization would not have used a 25 year old tanker like the "Prestige" but he also insisted that the key to improved maritime safety is active enforcement of existing law.

Council President-in-Office Dermot Ahern and Captain Liam Kirwan of the Irish Coastguard explained how the Irish authorities dealt with maritime disasters, while Robin Middleton, UK Secretary of State Representative, described the British approach.

On behalf of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, Anne Christiane Brusendorff informed MEPs about the special problems of maritime safety in the Baltic Sea, where oil tankers, in particular from the Russian Federation, pose a serious risk to the environment.

The 44 member Temporary Committee on Safety at Sea was established by the European Parliament in November 2003 for a term of six months.

Its job is to examine in detail recent maritime disasters, in particular the "Prestige" and the "Erika."

The panel is tasked with analysis of the social and economic consequences of these disasters, with regard to fisheries, industry and tourism, as well as the environment and health.

The committee will assess maritime safety standards more generally and the application of these standards by the European Union member states in compliance with EU and international law, and propose any measures it believes are necessary in its report due later this year.

Link : http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/feb2004/2004-02-19-04.asp