A matter of prestige

Back in 2002 an old oil tanker sank off the coast of Spain. The scale of the environmental disaster was impressive, if you’re impressed by destruction. 63,000 tonnes of oil spilled into the sea. 230,000 birds were killed, or rather, those are the ones people know about. 1,137 beaches were polluted, some of them being totally unusable and some just having lumps of oil sticking to people’s nice shoes they only bought that morning on holiday.

After 11 years a Spanish court has decided it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. Environmental group Greenpeace is predictably furious. I was working in maritime business research when it happened. It was everybody’s fault, but most of them never got anywhere near a court.

Captain Mangouras was 63 when he was in charge of the Prestige.. After it sank under him and he was helicoptered off he was arrested on the dock, handcuffed, taken to jail and bail was set at three million euros. AS he didn’t happen to have 3,000,000 euros he sat in jail for 893 days until the money could be found. Ship insurance companies were horrified, not just at the size of the bail (which was not covered by insurance anyway) In the same week but by the principle which seemed to be being set: consequences depend not on what you did, but how it is seen. After all, nobody died.

Back on the sinking ship a lot of people shared in the blame when the Prestige broke in half.  The Port State Control inspectors who passed the ship safe to sail at its previous port. The Spanish Environment Minister who was on holiday at the time also should arguably have shared some of the blame, because there was a way of avoiding the environmental damage, at least on the scale it happened.

Ships don’t often suddenly break in half. When they do they usually go straight to the bottom in minutes, far too fast to get to safety in a lifeboat once the sheer size of the ship pulls itself apart. There are warnings. Lots of different people noticed the big splits in the deck. In this case the split was 15 metres long. which is why Captain Mangouras had requested permission to put into a Spanish port. Spain denied permission, as did Portugal.

One option was to sail up a river and ground the vessel to stop it going anywhere else. When it split the oil spill could be controlled by putting a boom across the river. Oil tankers could drive up hopefully close enough to pump the oil off the ship. As plans go it was making the best of a horrible job, but it wasn’t going to work out that way.

Mindful of the fact that local fisherman would lose their income for years wherever the Prestige broke up, when it was 15km off the coast Spanish authorities ordered it further out to sea, where 21,000,000 gallons of oil would spread hopefully somewhere else. Let’s think about that for a second.

An experienced seafarer who has done this for decades radios the nearest maritime authority to say help, my ship is about to sink. When it does it’s going to go down in a few minutes. Anyone onboard when that happens will be killed and the 20 million gallons of oil we’re carrying is going into the sea. Let me into a port or let me shove it as far up a beach as I can get it, then we have a plan to control the damage.

And the official response from a first world nation state is officially: take it somewhere else and they can deal with it.

Old history. So what? The Captain was in charge so the Captain is to blame. It was all his fault. That’s what responsibility is all about. It’s a nice theory, but it doesn’t fit the facts. Some of the 27 members of the ship’s crew said the crack started after the ship hit something, possibly one of the hundreds of shipping containers floating about the world after they fall off ships each year before the door seals leak.

The Spanish maritime authority rejected this view and said the Prestige was in bad condition; it wasn’t sinking because of an accident, it was sinking because it was one of thousands of vessels out of date, not maintained, patched up with weld, registered somewhere they didn’t really mind what the vessel was like and passed safe to sail by variable inspection regimes based more on who was paying cash than what was and was not internationally acceptable, the reason why the International Maritime Organisation has White, Grey and Black lists of ship registries.

But given that, the ship owner wasn’t arrested. The owner of the oil wasn’t handcuffed. The inspectors in the embarkation port weren’t put in jail. Just the captain, the bus driver, who did everything he could to stop a bad thing getting worse.

Yesterday Captain Mangouras was cleared of blame for the oil spill and the events leading up to it. His career was over the day he was jailed. Yesterday he was sentenced to nine months in prison aged 73, for refusing to sail his ship out to sea, where it was towed before it sank.

If you’re looking for perspective try this. In February 2003 Adriano de Souza was music producer Phil Spector’s driver. When he saw Spector walk out of his house holding a gun, saying “I think I’ve killed someone,” he called the police who found  the body of actress Lana Clarkson found shot dead in a chair. Bail was set at $1,000,000 and Spector stayed out of jail until his trial four years later.

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