Fifteen hundred fathoms beneath the storm-tossed Atlantic waves an environmental time bomb is threatening Spanish beaches and fishing grounds, but nobody knows who is really to blame.
The wreck of the Prestige, the tanker that sank Tuesday with more than twice as much oil aboard as leaked from the Exxon Valdez, has raised an outcry in Europe about the use of aging rust buckets to carry toxic cargo. It has also highlighted how hard it is to assign responsibility for what could turn into one of the world's worst oil-spill disasters ever, and thus decide who should pay to clean it up.
The 26-year-old Japanese-built ship was owned by a company registered in Liberia, managed by a Greek firm, registered in the Bahamas, certified by an American organization, chartered by a Swiss-based Russian trading company, and carrying oil from Latvia to Singapore.
By Wednesday, the Prestige had leaked some 10,000 tons of fuel oil, blackening 50 miles of beaches in the Western Spanish province of Galicia and closing rich fishing grounds. Experts were divided over whether and when the 70,000 tons remaining in the vessel's hold would leak.
The accident has been felt acutely across Europe, where oil spills have polluted coastlines year after year. European Union officials are urging governments to speed up implementation of strict new marine safety rules, due to go into effect next year, and to go beyond those regulations.
"There is nothing to stop [EU] member states from expelling substandard vessels from their waters, if they had the political will," said Francois Lamoureux, director general of the EU's transport division.
The unexplained rupture in the tanker's side, which opened up in heavy weather last week, has also drawn attention to the way in which many flag countries - in this case the Bahamas - delegate their inspection responsibilities to private companies.
"So long as these companies continue to issue certification in exchange for a check to what are objectively dustbin ships, what can you expect?" complained Jo Le Guen, a French campaigner against maritime pollution.
The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), a nonprofit classification society that says it surveyed the Prestige annually, rejects that accusation. The vessel underwent "extensive repairs, extensive steel replacement ... including the replacement of two bulkheads" during a special survey in dry dock in China in May 2001, according to ABS spokesman Stewart Wade. Those repairs and others "brought the ship back into conformity with our requirements," Mr. Wade said, adding that only minor problems were found during a routine annual survey in Dubai last May. "We have no indication of what may have failed if anything did."
The sinking of the Prestige suggests that "either the inspections were not done properly or they are not sufficient to pick up faults in the structure," charged David Fantillo, a scientist with Greenpeace in England.
But from the web of responsibilities, nobody was ready to assume liability, and only the ship's Greek captain was in custody. The oil-trading company that had chartered the ship, Crown Resources, is a Swiss subsidiary of the Russian conglomerate Alfa Group, but its officials were tight-lipped Wednesday. "For all sorts of reasons we are not commenting" on the loss of the ship, Crown Resources CEO Steven Rudofsky said, before hanging up the phone brusquely.
French President Jacques Chirac said that he was "horrified by the inability of both national and European political leaders to implement measures that fight against the leniency that allows the increase in use of these floating dustbins."
He did not, however, point out that France - among other European countries - has failed to inspect the 25 percent of ships docking that it is required to check under European rules.
New regulations that will come into force next July would have banned the Prestige from European ports by 2005 because of her age and her build. Single-hulled tankers will be banned by 2015 at the latest, depending on their age, in line with US rules under the Oil Pollution Act passed in the wake of the Valdez spill.
The new European regulations - introduced after the Erika spilled 12,000 tons of oil onto French beaches in 1999 - will focus inspections on older vessels and those flying flags of convenience. The EU will also set up a maritime safety agency to oversee port inspections and monitor the classification societies. Ten of those societies certify about 90 percent of world tonnage, inspecting ships according to their own rules on behalf of countries which have registered vessels but which do not have the expertise to ensure their safety, such as Liberia, the Bahamas, and other flag countries where standards are lax.
"The Prestige is just the tip of the iceberg" said Dr. Fantillo. "We see only the disasters, but there are undoubtedly a lot of shipping companies today breathing a sigh of relief that it was not them."
Even if European ports tighten up their inspection regimes, however, they will not entirely eradicate the risk of disasters such as what happened to the Prestige: She did not leave from an EU port and was not heading for one. Nor are double-hull tankers entirely leak-proof, as the Italian chemical tanker Ievoli Sun proved when it sank off France's Normandy coast in 2000.
And with lengthy phase-out periods for single-hull tankers, Fantillo warned, "We could be facing Prestige-type problems for many years to come."