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Prestige Oil Spill Trial: Highlights the Need to Follow Strict Spill Response Procedures

Amid accusations of omitted evidence and an absent defendant, the trial of four men charged with environmental damage relating to the sinking of the Prestige Oil Tanker in 2002 has begun this week. Greek Captain Apostolos Mangouras, his Chief Engineer Nikolaos Argyropoulos, the absent First Mate Irineo Maloto and the Head of the Spanish Merchant Navy Jose Luiz-Lopez Sors are all accussed of the environmental negligence that led to one of Europe’s worst oil spills.

Around 50,000 tonnes of crude oil were released into the Atlantic Ocean near the Bay of Biscay in November 2002, when the Prestige tanker, battered by rough seas, began take on water some 50 miles of the coastline. The ship eventually sank after 6 days but only after it had been ordered out to sea by the then Head of the Spanish Merchant Navy, Jose Luiz-Lopez Sors.

The Spanish response to the incident was strongly criticised by the French Government for not bringing the stricken vessel to port and preventing spill response teams from boarding the tanker until it had been towed out to sea. Had the vessel been towed to the port at La Coruna, then the spill containment effort that the environmental teams would have been able to effect would have greatly minimised the impact of the spill, potentially reducing the risk to wildlife, and thousands of miles of coastline across three nations, Spain, France and Portugal.

Just a year after the oil spill Darren Kindleysides of the RSPB said;

“The incident was avoidable. Governments...must take urgent measures to protect...Europe’s coast and seas.”

In the year prior to the spill the International Maritime Organisation approved new laws that prohibited the use of single hull tankers to transport heavy oil anywhere in Europe. It is now hoped that by 2015 the use of single hulled tankers to transport oil will be illegal throughout the globe, eliminating the latent risk posed by vessels that are not structurally sufficient to carry oil.

Local fisherman and other affected industries are claiming damages of around £1.8 billion, with the final bill for damages expected to reach a staggering £3.25 billion. Should the Greek Captain be convicted of environmental negligence, then the 78 year old could face up to 12 years in jail.

The real question is this; have lessons been learnt from an environmental disaster that could have been so easily avoided. By conducting stricter inspection checks on sea faring vessels and implementing the correct emergency spill response procedures, incidents such as the Prestige disaster can be consigned to history.

Have your say on this blog. Do you think the penalties for contaminating Europe's coastline are sufficient? Is the claim for damages equivalent to the untold devastation that spills of this nature inflict upon local and marine environments?

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