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Another shipwreck

After a 10-year investigation, no one is going to have to pay the cleanup bill for the Prestige disaster

The state will not see a single cent of the more than four billion euros it was demanding from those responsible for the Prestige oil spill of 2002, given that no-one has been found guilty of causing the shipwreck and the ensuing oil slick. Nor will the state be paying out any compensation to the victims, since the decision to keep the damaged tanker away from the coast was not reckless, according to this week’s ruling by the Provincial Court of A Coruña. Unable to find any guilty parties, the court has simply slapped the ship’s captain, Apostolos Mangouras, with a short sentence for disobedience after taking too long to agree to his vessel being towed, once he had raised the alarm. This conviction is of no consequence as far as damages go.

There is a very noticeable lack of proportion between the means employed to reach this conclusion — a 10-year investigation, a nine-month trial — and the results. “Only ancillary aspects of the event have been proven, not the substantial ones from the perspective of Penal Law,” argues the tribunal. Then it goes on to say that a few of these aspects could have been investigated better “but were not;” an integral expert analysis of the wreckage would have had an “unacceptable” cost, and “nobody” knows the exact causes of what happened.

Nor do the judges know what the oil tanker’s destination was — they write that it might have been the port of Singapore or “another Asian port;” they also note that one of the ship’s officers, Ireneo Maloto, “has not been put on trial and remains missing, despite the police having received relatively reliable information regarding his whereabouts,” for reasons that are not explained. Finally, the Spanish government at the time, which was led by José María Aznar of the conservative Popular Party, was absolved of any responsibility for the fact that 63,000 tons of oil were released into the environment. In fact, the judges ruled that the director general of the Merchant Marine, José Luis López-Sors, did the right thing in sending the ship out to sea rather than bringing it in to shore.

It is evident that this result is largely due to having assigned the investigation to a small courthouse in the small town of Corcubión, which had to face the daunting task of investigating the sinking of an oil tanker registered in the Bahamas, with Liberian owners and logistical operators, a British insurer, US certification and chartered by a firm called Crown Resources, of “questionable” activities, according to the court. The absence of criminal responsibility is also due to the fact that even though the ship was in a very precarious condition, it had all the necessary permits to operate at sea.

Polluting does pay

The lesson to be drawn from this judicial result — which can still be appealed — is that Spain lacks the force to demand responsibility from those who carry out environmentally dangerous activities. The BP oil company had to plead guilty of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico before the US administration; and the French court in charge of the shipwreck of the Erika oil tanker, which contaminated 400 kilometers of coastline, handed down convictions against the guilty parties. Yet the Prestige tribunal cannot find anyone who is guilty of covering 2,980 kilometers of coastline in oil. It is clear that taxpayers are the only ones who have paid for the cleanup, and that in this case at least, polluting does pay, because the justice system has not investigated who was behind it.

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