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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 11/23/2002

What's another oil spill?

When the sorry saga of so-called intelligent life on this planet is finally written, certainly there should be a footnote at least on the sinking of the obsolescent oil tanker Prestige.

A news story on the ship's demise in stormy seas off the northwestern coast of Spain gave this succinct account of the lineage of the single-hulled tanker, which should have been scrapped years ago:

“The 26-year-old Japanese-built Prestige was owned by a Liberia-registered firm, registered in the Bahamas, managed in Greece, chartered by the Swiss-based Russian oil trader, and classified as seaworthy by the American Bureau of Shipping.” It was carrying 77,000 tons of fuel oil loaded in Latvia and bound for Singapore.

It is difficult to sort out blame, but it seems fair to suggest that Japan, Liberia, the Bahamas, Greece, Switzerland, Latvia, and possibly Singapore, Spain, and the United States in varying degrees are all responsible parties to this disaster, which has polluted parts of the Galician coast and threatened the livelihood of fishermen and others dependent on them.

If the entire oil cargo were to spill into the sea, it still would rank only 14th among disasters of this kind. The cold temperature at the bottom of the sea two miles below the surface might solidify the oil and keep it doing further environmental damage.

International maritime law is simply inadequate to deal with major oil spills. Every country that exports and imports oil, registers ships, leases them, loads, them, or operates them should be required to make deposits to cover at least part of the damage caused by tanker oil spills. Any country that cannot put up the deposits should not be allowed to register ships under its flag.

More serious, though, is the utter lack of concern on the part of most countries about the damage caused by such sea disasters. “Authorities don't care much about what happens in the sea,” complained Jose Luis Garcia Varas, a World Wildlife Fund marine expert in Spain. If the tanker had been allowed into a port instead of being towed out to sea, it might have been possible to limit the extent of the disaster. More to the point, though, the tanker should not have been allowed to put to sea in the first place.

The world's oceans are immense and cover much of the planet. But we are learning to our collective sorrow that they cannot be abused indefinitely. Yet individually and collectively, seagoing nations simply regard them as dumping grounds and act accordingly - even the cruise ships whose clientele are attracted by the beautiful, crystal clear waters in which they sail.

If the Bush Administration could think environmentally for once, it would take the lead in efforts to prevent the oceans from being turned into polluted sumps.



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