EU Officials Call For Stronger Laws As Oil Slick Spreads

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Paris ( - As clean-up efforts continued along the coast of Spain, where high winds were spreading oil slicks 150 miles off Galicia, the European Union and European leaders blamed each other for not enforcing safety legislation aimed at preventing such disasters.

French President Jacques Chirac has criticized the European Union for not strengthening laws against "garbage ships" such as the Bahamian-registered Prestige, which ruptured in a storm last week and broke in two on Tuesday.

But at a press conference, EU Transport Commissioner Loyola De Palacio said that European member governments should speed up the adoption of legislation that was already approved by the European parliament following a 1999 disaster in which the tanker Erika polluted 250 miles of coastline in France.

Greenpeace France Director Bruno Rebelle said the problem is that "although legislation has been accepted by the EU, member countries are taking a long time to adopt the rule as part of their own national laws so they can begin enforcing them."

Rebelle said the measures themselves "are not bad."

"However, there are too many loopholes in the laws for the enforcement of safety measures," he said.

The new EU rules require more inspections, especially of older, single-hulled tankers such as the Prestige, but they don't take effect until next year. However, some member states have criticized the "Erika 1" laws as not strong enough and additional stricter measures are now being drafted for adoption.

The Transport Commissioner urged EU members to start enforcing these laws now and not wait for even more legislation.

President Chirac's demand for "draconian measures" from the EU against irresponsible shippers comes at a time when the Commission is suing France and Ireland for not carrying out enough port inspections. France inspects 9.6 percent of the boats entering its ports but EU directives require that 25 percent of the traffic be inspected.

Rebelle said some European countries are dragging their feet about accepting stricter measures because it goes against their own interests.

"In particular, the Netherlands and Greece do not want stricter regulations because of their own interests in the shipping industry," he said.

In newspaper interviews, European officials said part of the problem is that owners of unsafe ships specifically stay away from EU ports so they can avoid inspection.

The Prestige was loaded in Russia and was heading to Singapore when it ruptured off the coast of Spain in stormy weather last week. It spilled about 1.6 million gallons of fuel and oil into the Atlantic Ocean before it sank to the bottom on Tuesday with the rest of its 20 million gallons of cargo.

The oil has already reached 180 miles of the fish-rich Galician coastline and has polluted 90 beaches. France and Portugal are carefully monitoring the movement of the slicks because heavy winds could blow the oil toward their coasts.

A U.N. treaty banning single-hulled tankers like the Prestige became effective this year but the phase-in compliance period runs until 2015.

Spanish Environment Minister Jaume Matas estimated economic losses due to the disaster at $42 million so far. Cleanup could take six months but the ecological consequences are likely to be seen for years to come.

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