Monday, December 09, 2002

Today's back-page interview in La Vanguardia is with Michel Girin, who is the top EU oceanographer; he was the guy in charge of the Erika cleanup in 1999. It seems to me that most of what he's got to say is pretty reasonable.

-What can we do now?
–Grit our teeth, work hard, and not lose hope.

–Everything looks terrible here.
–I understand. It's an ecological, economic, and human tragedy, but we can fight against it. Look: I went swimming at the beaches affected by the shipwreck of the Aegean Sea in summer 1993, seven months after the accident, and in France the waters where the Erika sank in December 1999 were already clean in summer.

--That fast?
– If it's cleaned up correctly, yes. The first thing is to collect all the fuel possible, and then Nature can regenerate itself. I'm not saying there isn't ecological damage, besides the economic damage, but it's not eternal. After two years a recovery is visible and it is completed in ten years

–Ten years! That's a long time for people live near the sea or from it
–I know. But there are no immediate or perfect solutions. Everybody needs to understand that.

–Too many mistakes have been made.
–I'm trying to be cold and unemotional. Don't expect any easy criticisms from me because I've been in charge during several crises like the Erika and I can assure you I made the decisions that my intelligence, the circumstances, and the pressures that I received permitted me. Later it was very easy to contemplate these done deeds from the comfort of an office, and with all the facts in hand, say that I had made errors

–Did you make errors?
–When you make a decision, you don't know what the weather will be like in five days or whether the ship will break in half and sink.

–You could tow it to a port.
–No port will accept a damaged ship. Would any port have accepted the Prestige?

–There are politicians who say that ports should be obligated to give refuge, but when I hear this, I think, "Great, so if there's no danger let's send the dangerous boat to Paris or Madrid." Maybe one day we can begin discussing the creation of a network of ports of refuge, compensating local people for the risk.

–What has the Prestige taught us?
–For those of us who make a career out of combatting these catastrophes, it's a special case. It's a historical example for the world.

–The Prestige is the first case in the history of shipping in which the option of a hurried distancing (of the ship) from the coast toward the high seas and then sinking it has been used.

–Until now all these accidents happened with the ship sinking near the coast. The fact that the sinking was so far out has positive aspects. It gives us time to fight spilled oil on the high seas with pumping boats like the 11, from 7 different countries, that have already pumped out 10,000 tons of fuel from the Prestige. This is good for everyone.

–So what's the bad part?
–The bad part for a lot of people is that the spilled oil is going to float along hundreds of miles of coast in the form of small oilslicks. The not-so-bad part for Galicia is that all the oilslicks that go somewhere else won't wash up on their beaches.

–“Nunca máis”, (Never again), the Galicians say. Will there be “máis”?
Yes. That is the sad truth.

–Day before yesterday there was a collision between an oil tanker like the Prestige and another ship off the coast of Singapore that caused a spill of 400 tons of oil into the sea. Every week there's a spill of a hundred or more tons and every year there's one of more than a thousand tons. It's like car accidents.

–But that happens far away from us.
–Yes, but sometimes it happens here, too. It's also true that the Prestige has marked a tipping point. The European condemnation has never been so loud and I think this will force the EU to take very serious measures; there are demands from all over Europe for more protection for the coastlines.

–What will happen?
–Measures will be taken. I'll leave it for the politicians to decide which ones, but I know what they are.

–Tell us.
–There are many, and on many fronts: improve the ships, improve the training of the captains, improve work schedules, improve the ports, improve the laws.

–What for, since nobody obeys them?
–Force them to be obeyed making the companies responsible for the economic damage, and the ecological damage too. Prohibit them from using our ports if they don't offer guarantees. These days the shipowners declare bankruptcy or hide behind an insurance policy that insures nothing. It's complicated, but we must make progress, and anyway the laws we have are obsolete.

–The laws of the sea have become obsolete because they provide an unlimited guarantee of the right of ships to circulate freely through the English Channel and the other main sea passageways...

–Like the Strait of Gibraltar.
–Yes, when those international laws were passed, they were fair and necessary for world trade because then cargoes were not dangerous for the people and the environment. But today 50,000 tons of oil or chemical products in a ship are an enormous danger for everyone. They have no right to travel by sea without controls.

I disagree with Girin about towing the ship to port. It seems to me that the Prime Minister could have decided, "Look, let's get this ship somewhere it won't do too much damage," and have towed the ship into the port of El Ferrol, which is an ugly dump and anyway was Franco's hometown. Damage outside the port of Ferrol would have been insignificant, a few hundred tons of oilslicks, and as for damage inside the port, who cares? Evacuate the population and bomb the place flat and burn up not only the nasty oil but also the ugly town. Well, OK, that might be a little excessive, but the idea would be to concentrate the damage in the least bad place. That's called cost-benefit analysis and is not a really hard thing to do if you are cool and unemotional.

Note that Girin's automatic reaction, when asked how to alleviate the problem, is to demnd new laws and law enforcement. I actually agree with him; just like there's an international standard for aircraft and an international network of air-traffic control, I don't see why we can't have a system of ship-traffic control which would supervise dangerous cargoes and set standards that ships transporting this hazardous stuff would have to meet. I mean, traffic by truck is controlled and supervised, and so is every other form of transport I can think of. You're not allowed to drive gasoline tanker trucks through downtown Barcelona for obvious reasons. Why can't we do something like that with ships?

I also disagree with Girin about the utility of insurance policies. The American system of oil tanker control requires that tankers docking in a US port have an effective insurance policy; therefore, it's something that can be done, as we proved when we tightened our rules after the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and haven't had an important spill since. You get those insurance company inspectors and actuaries looking over your oil tanker and, believe me, if there's something wrong with it you're going to find out when they invalidate your policy as fast as you can say "Rustbucket". It shouldn't be too hard to regulate oil tankers, since almost by definition oil tankers sail between oil-producing countries and oil-using countries. If the big oil-using countries slap high standards on tankers, and pressure the big oil-producers to do the same thing, that ought to take care of the problem without creating some new international body. If you combine real insurance policies, tough port standards, and a ship-traffic control like air-traffic control, that ought to do it, I say as we sit in my comfortable office far away from the problem.

Did you notice that the Spanish interviewer's first reaction when the French scientist proposed tougher laws was to cynically say, "Why bother, nobody obeys the law anyway?" The problem with this attitude is that it makes it very easy to justify, say, cheating on your taxes, or evading solid currency overseas, which is why there's no money in Argentina--it's all in Argentines' bank accounts in Miami, and not just the rich people, either, but the whole damn Argentine middle class. This negative attitude is common to all Spanish-speaking countries; Spain, for example, never had a decent government until democracy arrived in the late Seventies. No wonder people don't trust the government, but you have to learn to do so as a society in order to have an effective fiscal policy. This is what they call an asignatura pendiente in Spanish; in school, that means a required course you haven't passed yet.

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