Aging oil tankers with little oversight are environmental time bombs

In the second week of December, an aging Russian oil tanker called the Hero of Sebastopol left the Latvian port of Ventspils to traverse a well-traveled route toward Singapore.

Chartered by Pasadena-based Westport Petroleum, the Hero passed through the Baltic Sea into the narrow straits separating Denmark from Sweden, then cruised along the North Sea between France and Britain and headed toward the Bay of Biscay along Spain’s northern coast. All along the 24-year-old tanker’s route, there were protests by residents and European politicians expressing concern about the proximity of another aging oil tanker along their shores.

One year earlier, in November 2002, another single hulled oil tanker of the same class and size, the 26-year-old Prestige, followed the same route to Singapore and sank 130 miles off the northwest coast of Spain, unleashing one of the world’s worst environmental catastrophes. It spilled nearly twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez did in 1989 in Alaska.

This time, as the aging Hero of Sebastopol steamed toward Spanish waters, it was met by warships from the Spanish navy — a sure sign of a lack of confidence in the integrity of vessels that transport a significant percentage of the world’s oil. The Spanish were determined to keep the ship at least 200 miles from the country’s coast.

Ships more than 15 years old have 10 times more operating deficiencies than ships 5 years old or younger and are far more likely to be detained at port because of safety or operational problems, according to inspection records compiled by the Ports of State Control, an assembly of European and Canadian port authorities.

But that didn’t stop Westport Petroleum from chartering the Hero to carry 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. A maritime expert asked by the European Union to inspect the tanker at port in Ventspils reported that indeed it was “rusty, but not that critical. I mean it did pass through the inspection.”

Those words were a haunting reminder of those used by a former captain of the Prestige to describe the condition of that ship, which he informed the owners and the ship’s inspectors had “cracked and corroded beam parts” in a port ballast tank, as well as a leaky boiler and other troubles in the engine room. He communicated those concerns three months after an inspection by the Houston-based American Bureau of Shipping, or ABS, declared it seaworthy and three months before it sank.

The Hero made the journey to Singapore without incident — a lucky trip. Increasingly, however, such journeys are a matter of good fortune, not strong safety standards: According to Marie Isler Beguin, a French member of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee, which has been conducting an ongoing investigation of the Prestige, there are about 150 ships similar to the Prestige operating on the high seas today, and the question of another accident on the scale of the Prestige is not a matter of if, but when.

Eighty percent of all goods transported around the world are moved by ship. Yet underneath this vast, international universe of moving parts is often chaos. The maritime system provides few checks against ships like the Prestige or the Hero of Sebastopol from hitting the open seas with a hull filled with dangerous cargo.

Shipping operates on principles of limited liability and complex ownership structures that date back to the 18th century. But if a ship gets into trouble at sea today, more is at stake than Spanish bullion or English tea. Cargoes like oil, chemicals, even nuclear waste are transported on the high seas, with the potential to devastate the environment and harm tens of thousands of people if something goes wrong.

Substantial regulation is prevented in part by foreign “flagging,” a policy that permits ship owners to register their vessels in countries that have far less stringent safety and labor requirements than those of their home country. These ship registries have led to a rupture between the actual authority of a nation-state and its symbol, the flag. The overwhelming majority of ship owners are based in major maritime powers — Greece, the United States, Norway, Britain and Japan — yet most of their ships are registered under a foreign flag, in countries such as Liberia, Panama, the Bahamas, Malta, Honduras and Trinidad, which offer barely a veneer of national authority over the ships flying their flags. In return, these “flag states” receive valuable hard currency in the form of tonnage and registration fees.

The International Maritime Organization, affiliated with the United Nations, is the one international body that oversees the maritime trade, but it has few teeth to enforce serious regulation. Little oversight and poor accountability in the shipping industry have given rise to a maze of legal trapdoors behind which less reputable owners may hide.

Though most shipowners abide by basic safety and maintenance guidelines, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development now says that the lack of transparency permitted by existing ownership structures in the shipping business opens the door to widespread abuse.

The Spanish learned of these risks the hard way, when the Prestige sank, loaded with 77,000 tons of crude oil. The oil spilled along nearly 1,000 miles of coastline, from the Spanish province of Galicia all the way into southwest France, suffocating everything in its path. Along many of the beaches, the sea air mingled for months with the acrid smell of a gasoline station. About 100,000 people lost work for six months or more; the European Union estimates it could cost as much as $5 billion to clean up the damage. The ecological damage will remain for decades.

The Prestige was effectively stateless: Owned by Greeks, registered in Liberia, flagged in the Bahamas and carrying Russian oil, the Prestige was subject to no national or international authority.

Despite warnings from the captain, in the end there was no one with the power to stop the ship from taking its final fateful journey with a full load of toxic oil, as there was no one to block the more fortunate Hero of Sebastopol from embarking on a similar route a year later. The Spanish government has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against ABS — which inspected the ship — asking for billions of dollars in damages; ABS has countersued the Spanish, alleging the damage from the spill resulted from the government’s handling of the disaster.

When we are counting on the vagaries of luck to ensure against environmental catastrophe, it is time for a change. The OECD and the European Union have proposed reforms that would mandate clear accountability on the part of owners when a disaster occurs, a more certain way of ensuring that ships are kept in top form. To increase the odds — at least against another devastating accident — the IMO should begin the long process of reforming a system that enables ship owners to find the most amenable regulatory flag for their ships and to hide behind the fog of corporate fronts that shield them from responsibility.

Today, when disaster strikes, there is often nowhere to turn to aid the victims. Shortly after the Prestige sank, the Spanish discovered that they could not hold the Greek shipping family that profited from the tanker’s operations accountable because the ship was technically owned by a Liberian front company. Its sole asset now rests at the bottom of the Atlantic, valueless except to the mollusks clinging to its rusting hull.

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Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.