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March 2, 2004

Salvors slam Spanish price tag on places of refuge

A Spanish Government decision to put a half billion dollar price-tag on a place of refuge for ships in distress is counter-productive and in some situations could actually increase the threat to the environment, says the International Salvage Union (ISU).

A new Spanish Decree requires a Euros 415.2 million financial guarantee for entry into a place of refuge. ISU President Joop Timmermans commented: "The Spanish appear to have learnt nothing from the devastating Prestige spill. If anything, this ‘Spanish Solution’ actually makes a repeat of the Prestige disaster more likely."

"After the Prestige experience, it should be obvious that there are situations where the only way to save a laden tanker with severe damage is to grant immediate access to a place of refuge," said Timmermans. "It is difficult to understand how a system confronting the shipowner with a demand for half a billion dollars can be helpful. It is hard to imagine how a demand for the surrender of rights, under international conventions, to limit liability will contribute to prompt decisions on requests for shelter. Indeed, this approach is likely to increase the number of lepers of the sea."

The "unhelpful" Spanish Decree could also stand in the way of the salvor attempting to use his best endeavors, as required under the Salvage Convention 1989 and Lloyd’s Form, to prevent pollution. "Certainly," said Timmermans, "a salvor is unlikely to be able to meet a demand for such huge guarantees."

Noting estimates that the Prestige spill disaster will cost over Euros 1 billion, and perhaps Euros 5 billion according to WWF estimates, Timmermans said the ship could have been saved, but only following a tow to a place of refuge. The cost of salvage and pollution damage (on a much smaller scale) would have been in the region of Euros million at most.

"Having gambled by turning the Prestige away – and losing up to Euros 5 billion in the process – the Spanish have now made their position worse. In practical terms, a demand for a huge financial guarantee amounts to a blanket ban on shelter along the Spanish coast. This could contribute to a re-run of the Prestige – in Spanish waters or in the waters of neighboring Coastal States. It places neighboring Coastal States at risk," said Timmermans.

"We must hope that other EU member states will recognize the folly of this heavy-handed approach. It is self-defeating and could well lead to the ultimate absurdity: a Salvage Master having to watch a laden tanker sink, a few miles off the coast, while the parties involved argue about money. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Lloyd’s Form."

Joop Timmermans contrasted the Spanish attitude to the British approach to the place of refuge issue. He said: "Robin Middleton, the UK SOSREP, or Secretary of State’s Representative, recently told a European Parliament committee concerned with maritime safety that neighboring coastal states should cooperate in identifying the best refuge for casualties. He maintained that governments should be prepared to accept a casualty if the best refuge is in their jurisdiction, even if the accident happens in a neighboring jurisdiction.

"The SOSREP clearly recognizes the common interest of Coastal States. In contrast, the Spanish Government’s Decree appears to be designed to deter requests for shelter. It also leaves no room for constructive cooperation with neighboring states."

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