Oil tanker sinks off Spain

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For another take and a photo...at least when I looked in on it, go to Oil tanker sinks off coast of Spain on the MSNBC website.

This whole thing at first blush looks like a real comody of errors what with ports not willing to let the ship in. Understandable perhaps, but the end result was that a bad problem has now become a lot worse.
The owners should walk the plank! They have 7 tankers, all at least 20 years old and one that's 30 years old. Some are Greek flagged, other use various flags of convenience. Who says Ismay was a bad egg?
REPORTAGE on this incident is as execrable as ever (with the commendable exception of the Sky report).

The Times: describers the Prestige as "a Liberian tanker, registered in the Bahamas". The paper displays a graphic of the Prestige superimposed on Trafalgar Square; I thought the press had got over that sort of thing in the 1930s! It gets worse; her deadweight capacity is rendered in terms of – Olympic-sized swimming pools and road tankers!

The Times also says "The fuel oil concerned is particularly heavy and this could mean that much of it will sink along with the doomed ship." I know crude comes in several s.g.'s but I've yet to hear of a grade heavier than water. Perhaps someone can educate me otherwise?

'Gallons' of course proliferate just about everywhere; whether US or imperial is not gone into. On TV news some silly bugger stuck all the requisite noughts so's we'd know what it looked like in litres!

TV newscasters seem unable to equate 'foundering' with 'sinking'. They also seem to confuse cargo compartments with 'containers'. And while I'll allow that 'stranding' has a general shoreside useage, a vessel in oceanic waters cannot by definition ever be said to be 'stranded'.

But enough of such curmudgeonly carping; what of the facts of the matter?

I note the vessel's master has been "jailed in Spain on charges of disobeying authorities and harming the environment". Apparently they didn't care for him taking time to negotiate a salvage contract. Notwithstanding I'm not sure whether the Spanish have the requisite jurisdiction, their action is in accordance with the gratuitous criminalization of merchant seafarers who are only performing their lawful duties.

For those understandably puzzled by the novel ideal of southbound crude oil (she was on passage Ventspils to Singapore for orders) I gather she was used as a store ship for a while in the Baltic, presumably waiting for a favourable market. I've no information on the origin of her cargo however.

The Spanish government is using 'port state control' as a political instrument to castigate Gibraltar and by inference Britain. Apparently she bunkered at the buoys in June and escaped inspection. What about Ventspils? I thought Latvia was in the EU but I'm too idle to look that up right now.

Well, as you might expect, the usual round of posturing has begun in earnest. From the BBC article:

French President Jacques Chirac said: "I am horrified by the inability of those in charge, politically, nationally and particularly at European level, to take action to stem the laxity which permits these ships fit only for the dustbin to carry on."

Okay, so this bloke is horrified. Justifiable perhaps, but one has to wonder where these blokes were befor the accident occured in the first place. The existance of these old worn out and obsolecent ships is not exactly a state secret in any nation and the silence out there is a screamer! Seems to me that as long as nothing happens, they're content to play ostrich and stick their heads in the sand.
This is what happens when you deregulate.
F.o.C ships are beholden to no one and their company/s can run them in whatever condition they like.

I believe the Captain of this old bucket has been arrested. If I had my way the entire management should be arrested and charged!

Or over-regulate perhaps? That can be and often is a big problem in and of itself. Especially when the various authorities are not on the same page. Erik Wood can speak more to this then I can, but to call the regs in force contradictory and confusing only scratches the surface of the problem.

Still, as I indicated, one still has to wonder where all these outraged politicians and policy wonks are befor things go to hell.
Latvia is not in the EU, I've since found out!

I also gather that the Prestige was carrying a refined product, not crude. Without reaching for the physics of the matter I surmise that with it being a compressible liquid with a significant coefficient of expansion it is quite possible that the pressure and temperature gradients encountered will allow of the cargo remaining on the seabed if carried there in intact compartments. Anyone versed in Tanker Practice out there?

As for the arbitrary imprisonment of the vessel's master: among other things this is in all probability a violation of his human rights under the requisite Convention to which both Spain and Greece (he is a Greek national) are signatories. However, that is likely to be the long way round to remedy and I would for the time being expect strong consular representations to be made by the Greek government for a more humane treatment of a shipwrecked mariner plucked from a foundering vessel in heavy seas. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, indeed!

In any case, when it comes to apportioning culpability, the intractability of the Spanish in denying the vessel a port of refuge, at which she could have been sorted out in safety, seems to have been a principal factor in exacerbating the damage they have incurred.

The long term solution for single-skin tankships of dubious scantlings (while they work out the remainder of their working lives) would be for them to be restricted to prescribed tracks which would take them well clear of coastal waters while still being within reach of the contracted emergency towing vessels on permanent station.

In the present case I would have thought that an ETV (with oilspill containments) would have been on station at Vigo or thereabouts to cover the span between Brest and Gibraltar. If there was no provision for such precautions on such a significant navigation node as Cape Finisterre then Spain will be that much wiser after the event ....


John Meeks

I agree with every word, Noel...however, I would like to raise one small question...

Whilst it is quite possible that the cargo of Prestige may be safely contained in an inert state within its sealed containment now - what happens in, say, 90 years time?

Titanic is little more than a fragile shell of rust, ready to collapse at any time......


John M
Does anyone know who will be accountable for the cleaning up and the economic effects along the shoreline? How are the tankers insured and stuff like that.

John Meeks: According to what I have heard the cold water in the deep will make the oil stiffer and less likely to "escape" from the bottom.
Does anyone know who will be accountable for the cleaning up and the economic effects along the shoreline? How are the tankers insured and stuff like that.

Tankships on remunerative passage, at the imperative of the parties in the venture (owners, operators, shippers, charterers, consignees, bill-of-lading holders, their agents or their surveyors) routinely carry insurance against inter alia third party claims for pollution damage. Such insurances are usually placed on London. Under adequate private international maritime law damaged parties can pursue meritorious claims in the civil courts.

The prevailing doctrine is that the polluter pays but in this present case (as I understand it) the damaged jurisdiction went against the expert advice of the salvors in denying the distressed vessel a port of refuge and subsequently expelling her from their jurisdiction. Therefore, the insurers can now plead that due and well-advised damage limitation was not practised and that their liability should be limited to that damage which would have been incurred had the available expert advice been followed.

It should therefore resolve into an apportionment of liability between the insurers and the government of Spain and/or the province of Galicia. The apportionment would be the subject of arbitration, negotiation or litigation in an international court acceptable to the parties – in practise such cases usually end up in London or New York.

Oil pollution can be the subject of General Average between the parties to the venture but only to the extent that allowable expenses in General Average are limited to those expenses incurred in avoiding or minimising pollution or damage to the environment.

Otherwise, there are public international remedies. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships as amended (usually referred to as MARPOL 73/78) may be invoked. The Civil Liability Conventions 1969 and 1992 impose strict but limited liability for oil pollution. Where the sums recoverable thereunder prove inadequate there are further provisions under the IOPC Compensation Fund established under the 1971 and 1992 Fund Conventions. This fund is financed by levies on the receivers of oil cargoes.

The foregoing does not purport to be a complete or definitive exposition of the relevant law.

Whilst it is quite possible that the cargo of Prestige may be safely contained in an inert state within its sealed containment now - what happens in, say, 90 years time?

The containment may well corrode and fall away but I would surmise that the contents will simply subside into a highly viscous amorphous mass to remain on the seabed in perpetuity. This is because the oil can neither decompress nor induct heat where it is.


This mornings paper remarked on the possibility of
salvaging the oil, purportedly now fastly becoming a solid. Resting at a two-mile depth..a quaint half-mile shallower than our beloved wreck :)

The salvagers in question are the same which salvaged KURSK, and spoke of submersible robotics, piping, etc.

All at a Kings ransom!

Michael A. Cundiff
The latest news is that a substantial oil slick, estimated at 9,000 tons, has emerged from the wreck of the Prestige and is being driven towards the Galician coast. It seems my previous conjectures as to the physical state of the cargo are awry; length and thermocline of the notional water column notwithstanding, the cargo is evidently still liquid and buoyant. There is however some speculation that the efflux could be bunker fuel rather than cargo.

As to whether recovery of the cargo in situ is feasible, I would opine that this would have to be accomplished by submarine technology. I doubt very much whether a necessarily prolonged and complicated salvage operation could safely be conducted from the surface in these most exposed waters.

A sister ship to the Prestige, the Byzantio, is loading the same product, Muuga (Talinn) for Rotterdam for orders (reports vary). The Byzantio is 26 years old but has passed the requisite surveys and is pronounced seaworthy. Nevertheless, there have been representations by eco-lobbyists to interdict the charter. Notwithstanding they are about thirty years too late, the global consequences of impeding the international oil trade clearly have not been thought through by these well-meaning but naí¯ve would-be interventionists.

The latest plan is to send non other than the Nautille down to take a look at the wreck. Kind of interesting from a Titanic standpoint to see that the ship looks like directly after a fall of that distance (I.E implosion, impact damage)...
Though given the magnitude of the disaster that's hitting the beaches, that's a pretty unimportant issue...

Susan Leighton

What puzzles me about the sinking of the Prestige and subsequent disastrous oil spill is how an industry that involves so much money would allow a single-hulled ship to haul such a precious and destructive cargo.
As an Environmental Enforcement Specialist for the state of Florida, my primary responsibility is to "regulate" underground and above ground petroleum storage tanks. Even for a tank as small as 550 gallons, we require a double-walled system or some other means of protection or containment. These regulations are quite effective in protecting the environment here in Florida. Owners either upgrade their systems or they could end up paying fines of up to $10,000 per violation. This usually gets their attention.
Are there not international regulations regarding the type of equipment that can transfer petroleum products over the open ocean? I believe regulating CAN be effective if the RIGHT things are regulated...like the equipment that transports or stores the hazardous material.
There are now regulations regarding double bottoms and double sides on tankers. These are designed to prevent the loss of cargo in minor grounding incidents. Unfortunately, all the doubling of sides and bottoms does not help when the hull girder is compromised. In this case, the ship broke apart. No hull design could have prevented an oil spill.

What could have prevented this disaster was moving the ship into a harbor of refuge. When the captain's request was denied, there was no doubt in anyone sailor's mind of the outcome. The authorities who refused permission for the ship to escape the ocean waves are to blame in this incident--not the shipping company.

That said, we have a lot of aging bottoms out there carrying oil and other cargo. This is a problem in a world where an old ship can be re-flagged and continue operating once it no longer meets regulations in countries like the U.S., Britain, etc.

-- David G. Brown

Susan Leighton

I still do not understand why a single-hulled ship is allowed to transport millions of gallons of petroleum product in their 'cargo compartments'. The oil/petroleum product is worth millions. Why would the oil industry NOT insure that their 'investment' is appropriately protected? I can understand a disregard for the environmental impact(because I see it on a daily basis), but I would think the oil industry would, at least, want to protect their product by transporting it in an adequate storage system.
Susan -- There are strong technical reasons why on the open sea a single hull tanker is actually a safer and stronger vessel. I suggest you look up the story of the tanker "OHIO" during WWII. It carried aviation gasoline to Malta and absorbed an enormous pounding--eventually reaching its destination floating on its cargo.

The double bottom only protects in the case of penetration of the outer shell plating by something like a rock. That's only one of a couple of billion possible things that can go wrong with a ship. However, it is a very likely possibility when operating inshore--such as near petroleum docks. Therefore, the industry is moving toward double hull ships. I have seen one report that double hull tankers have 60% less chance of an oil spill in a minor grounding accident.

However, what happened to the tanker off Spain is a completely different accident. The ship broke apart at sea. It would have spilled just as much oil with or without a double bottom/sides.

As to why older ships still operate, that's a question of economics, laws, labor unions, and many other factors. In some way, the switch to more expensive double bottom tankers may have resulted in many older ships being retained in the fleet. Cheap always drives dear out of the market. So, if a new tanker is "dear"(expensive) and a cheap old rustbucket is available...

--David G. Brown
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