March 21, 2003

IMO criticized at Prestige hearing
The Transportation Committee of the European Parliament yesterday continued its Brussels hearing on safety at sea, held in response to the Prestige accident. The focus moved to discussions on global maritime safety as well as environmental and economic issues. At the end of the hearing, Rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ELDR, B) strongly criticized IMO for not participating in the hearings, though invited.

Yesterday's meeting saw a parade of experts give their views on

  • how to improve maritime safety at both EU and global levels,
  • implement the polluter-pays principle and
  • raise environmental protection standards.

For the International Society of Classification Societies (IACS), Alan Gavin argued that in each Member State one person should have total responsibility for preventing disasters at sea. Port State Control should be extended and all vessels should be equipped with a black box. In the case of the Prestige, a black box could have supplied crucial information.

For the European Community Shipowners' Association (ECSA), Emanuele Grimaldi claimed that EU shipowners complied with all maritime safety rules. It was time to transpose EU legislation into national rules but as the shipping sector was an international sector it was imperative to have the same rules worldwide.

David Whiteheas, representing the European Sea Ports Organization, asked that his organisation be involved in the creation of an EU-wide plan for ports of refuge. He told MEPs that ports were not necessarily the best place for a ship in distress and that sheltered waters were also an alternative. The Prestige disaster had proved that emergency plans were needed and that it should be made clear who would give orders when a disaster happened.

Eduardo Chargas, of the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF), heavily criticized the system of flags of convenience and its consequences for seafarers. Ship registration had become business, with some countries even registering hijacked ships and ships involved in international terrorism. The master of a ship was still responsible on board his ship, but he had fewer powers. He should have the right not to sail when it was not safe.

The new executive director of the European Maritime Safety Agency, Mr Willem de Ruiter, said there were two crucial issues: what lessons could be learned and what measures taken. The Prestige was sailing under a safe flag (the Bahamas), was owned by a respected company and had a reputable classification society. Yet the disaster had still happened. There was not so much a need for new legislation as for the existing rules to be applied in all Member States. In response to questions from Members, he added that a European Coast Guard could not be set up tomorrow but that the EMSA would promote better coordination and cooperation between the relevant services in the Member States.

On behalf of the World Wildlife Fund, Raul Garcia said that [as a result of the Prestige accident] 2,800 kilometres of beach had been polluted, the fishing industry had been abandoned and 200,000 birds had died. He welcomed the plan to create safe fishery areas and asked for a rapid phasing-out of single-hull tankers in order to prevent other disasters happening

For the Comité Européen des Assurances (CEA), Christian Pirotti voiced concern about the consequences of the Erika and Prestige disasters for his industry. The European liability directive could lead to a lack of transparency, he claimed, and warned that the insurance sector could not guarantee unlimited liability in the event of such major disasters.

On behalf of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO), Paul Swift claimed that tankers owned by his members had been built to meet all classification standards and were therefore safe. He warned that the EU should not develop new rules for maritime safety on a unilateral basis, as this would be a distortion of competition.

Rapporteur's conclusions

At the end of the hearing, Rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ELDR, B) said he had heard so many contradictions in the answers given by witnesses that it was impossible to draw any useful conclusions.

Fact-finding missions to Galicia next week and to France later in April will be the next steps in the committee's efforts to learn what went wrong with the Prestige and – even more important – what lessons can be drawn for maritime safety. Mr Sterckx will draft a report in June with recommendations on how to prevent such disasters and beef up EU maritime legislation.

Among the unanswered questions: who in November 2002 took the decision not to allow the stricken tanker into a Spanish port and why was this decision taken? Ports of refuge, said the rapporteur, were important for safety. Unfortunately, there were neither tools nor skilled workers available in La Coruna. Furthermore, if such disasters happened anywhere in EU waters in future, only one person should be in command and that person should take full responsibility at all stages of the crisis.

Another point was that there is an urgent need for legislation to set up a compensation system for ports of refuge, to encourage local and regional authorities to create the necessary facilities for such ports. Sterckx also argued that the Port State Control system could be improved. Not only ships but also their crews should be submitted to this control system.

On behalf of the committee, he deplored the fact that the International Maritime Organization, although invited, had not appeared at the hearing.

Parliament was not satisfied with the IMO, which was too slow and not strict enough as far as international maritime safety rules were concerned.

Although various experts had asked that the EU should not come forward with legislation on a unilateral basis, Mr Sterckx found it hard to tell the victims in Galicia that they had to wait another five years for stricter rules because the IMO was not ready yet.

Finally, the transport sector needed much more transparency. It was often unclear who owned a ship, who was the insurance company, which was the flag state, where a vessel came from and where it was going or even where it was registered.

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