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February 19 2004

Euro parliament maritime panel meets

Open registry bashers were prominently on stage yesterday. The European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Safety at Sea was told on Wednesday that the EU's response to recent maritime disasters had missed the key point--the human factor. But the testimony that followed was no scholarly dissertation on how to reduce fatigue risks.

Eduardo Chagas, of the Maritime Transport Section of the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF), explained to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that the prime causes of tanker casualties were not structural but human. Grounding and collisions accounted for almost 50% of incidents, whereas only around 11% were related to hull failure. According to Chagas, 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, he declared. Chagas told astonished MEPs 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 voiced concern about the tendency to criminalize seafarers. More than one year after the Prestige sank, Captain Apostolous Mangouras was still under detention in Spain. [Earlier MEP's received a report on an interview conducted with Captain Mangouras in Spain on February 5.]

"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 criminalisation", said Chagas. Moreover, he asserted, for thousands of today's international seafarers, life at sea was a modern form of slavery and their workplace was a slave ship.

The debate generated by the Prestige was, said the ETF representative, in grave danger of missing the key point: that it pays to run a substandard ship. There were lots of "free riders" running vessels all over the world. Therefore, the role of flag states should come under the spotlight, as many flag states did not even enforce minimum international standards. Chagas urged MEPs to press the Commission to take account of human element issues when drafting the "Erika III package" announced for this year.

Professor P.K. Mukherjee of the World Maritime University also pointed out that the human factor in maritime safety and environmental protection was vital. At the center of global concern over maritime safety and environmental protection was the human element in all its facets. According to Mukherjee, the status of the seafaring profession at all levels and in all parts of the world including Europe required serious review. He added that there was a lack of job security even for masters of ships. In conclusion, he said that no stone should be left unturned in improving the lot of seafarers everywhere in the world and that the EU was well positioned to lead the way in this important task.

A range of other experts also appeared before the committee. Speaking for the French shipowners' organization Armateurs de France, Mr Berlet said French shipowners had on a voluntary basis adopted a Blue Charter aimed at improving maritime safety. The same message came from Jan Koperniecki, chairman of the Oil Companies International Maritime Forum OCIMF. 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 was active enforcement of existing law.

European 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, posed a serious risk to the environment.

Lastly, 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. Mr Gonzalez Laxe told MEPs that 50% of ships were sailing under a flag of convenience, 70% of oil tankers still were single-hull tankers and about 40% of vessels were 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. Zamora 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.

Before Wednesday's meeting of the Temporary Committee on Improving Safety at Sea, members of the committee learned the results of an interview held by a delegation of MEPs with Captain Apostoulos Mangouras, Master of the oil tanker Prestige, which sank off the Galician coast on November 19, 2002. During that meeting, which took place on February 5, in Barcelona, Captain Mangouras said that an enormous environmental maritime disaster could have been prevented if the Spanish authorities had allowed him to take his ship to a place of refuge. But to his surprise, the authorities had ordered a tugboat to pull the ship in a northerly and later in a north-westerly direction, where the Prestige had sunk. The vessel is still leaking oil, polluting the nearby coast of Galicia.

The delegation was composed of committee chairman Georg Jarzembowski (EPP-ED, D), rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ELDR, B) and four other MEPs - Rosa Miguelez Ramos (PES, E), Carlos Ripoll Y Martinez De Bedova (EPP-ED, E), Camilo Nogueira Roman (Greens/EFA, E) and Koldo Gorostiaga Atxalandabaso (Ind, E). They decided to meet the captain in Barcelona because the committee had received no answer from a Spanish judge to its request to allow the captain to come to Brussels for an exchange of views during one of its public hearings. (Since then they have heard that Captain Mangouras, who still has to report daily to the local police in Barcelona, will not be allowed to leave Spain until his court case is over.) At the meeting on February 5, the captain answered Members' questions on a range of issues. He said there was no indication that his ship was in a bad condition when he took command and he confirmed that the ship was carrying 77,000 tonnes of oil.

Mangouras said it was still unclear to him exactly how the initial damage to the ship was caused. He underlined that the initial damage only had led to relatively limited oil spills, caused by some broken butterworth lids on cargo tanks. Crew members estimated the loss of oil at 2000 to 3000 tonnes on 14 November. More precise measurements were not possible at that moment because the ship was listing. The main engine stopped automatically when the vessel was listing in excess of 25%. Consequently, there was no other choice than to give the order to ballast two ballast tanks in order to straighten the ship and reduce the pollution.

MEPs were also told about the difficulties the captain encountered whilst his ship was fastened to the tugboat Ria de Vigo. Listing had made the deck slippery and dangerous. The danger was increased by the presence of oil and waves hitting the deck. The emergency towing installation on the deck could not be used, because the steam powered winches were out of action. Mangouras stressed that he only received instructions from the Spanish authorities. He said that the harbormaster of La Coruna, boarding the ship in the morning of November 15 2003, ordered him to start the main engine, without making any assessment of the physical condition of the ship.

The captain had told the harbormaster that he was reluctant to do so because a running engine would lead to more vibration. Nevertheless, he ordered the engine to be repaired. In the meantime, the weather had improved temporarily on November 15, providing a window of opportunity to take the Prestige into a safe haven. Questioned by delegation members, the captain denied allegations that he had run the risk of running the Prestige aground by not starting the engine before, when the vessel was only a few miles from the coast. The Prestige had tow anchors on board, he said, which could have been used to prevent it from running aground. Mangouras assured the delegation that he had obeyed the Spanish orders and had also cooperated with the Dutch salvage company Smit International.

Questioning the Prestige captain was one of the key tasks of the temporary committee before it draws up its report for the European Parliament. Rapporteur Dirk Sterckx will present his report in Strasbourg on March 8, 2004. The vote in plenary is scheduled for the April plenary session, also in Strasbourg

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