What could help prevent oil spills?

Anthony Palmiotti is director of continuing education at the SUNY Maritime College, New York. Mr. Palmiotti holds an unlimited tonnage merchant marine license and teaches oil spill cleanup at the college. Palmiotti was interviewed by Ben Arnoldy, The Christian Science Monitor's online producer.

csmonitor.com: About how many vessels fit the profile of the Prestige?

Mr. Palmiotti: "It is generally assumed that the commercial life of a vessel is 20 to 25 years although many active vessels are older. The Prestige was built in 1976, which would put it at the end of its commercial life cycle."

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csmonitor.com: Is it cheaper for transport companies to clean up spills than upgrade to safer vessels?

"In the long run it is always better and cheaper to do the job right than to try and clean it up afterward. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, US law requires not only cleanup, but liability, to those affected by the spill. It's really a question of accountability."

csmonitor.com: The Prestige was owned by a Greek company, operated by a Swiss company, and registered in the Bahamas. Who is going to be legally responsible for the cleanup?

"Regardless of the nationality of the owner or crew, vessels are subject to the laws of the flag state, in this case the Bahamas. The Prestige was operating under the Bahamas flag and so was subject to the regulations of the Bahamas. Most nations with a registry, including the Bahamas, require their vessels [to] comply with international standards such as SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) and the ISM Code (International Safety Management Code). Countries also have authority called Port State Control, which allows regulatory agencies like our Coast Guard to board vessels and assure compliance with either national or international standards."

csmonitor.com: How do you create more accountability in international waters?

"Everything I have read indicates that this incident happened in international waters. The problem, of course, is that oil on the water is not subject to boundaries or conventions. Since not all countries have the same requirements for safety or construction it is hard to impose national standards on international commerce."

csmonitor.com: What could help prevent oil spills?

"Eighty-five percent of all maritime accidents are the result of human error. I don't know if this was the case with the Prestige but in general, training and more training helps prevent accidents. In the case of collision or a grounding, it's better to have a double hull than a single hull. The whole idea behind a double hull is literally just what it says. Imagine you have a container and you fill it with oil. And you wrap another container around it, so maybe there's a void space between the two containers. The theory is that if you hit something, instead of rupturing the hull, you have 10 feet of void space between you and the oil.

"If you are in a major spill, if you can recover 15 percent of the spilled product, you've done a pretty good job."

csmonitor.com: Why is the EU ban on single-hull tankers set so far in the future?

"Since the lifecycle of a ship is so long, to implement a regulation requiring double hulls immediately would put most operators out of business. In the US single hulls will not be phased out completely until 2015."

csmonitor.com: Are US regulations on tankers stricter than those set by the European Union?

"The latest US regulations were put into effect after the EXXON Valdez accident. At this time, the US and Northern Europe probably have the most stringent oil pollution regulations."

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