Crucial issues must be addressed by official inquiry into accident

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The Independent Online
JAMES CUSICK

Q: How did the Sea Empress end up on the rocks?

A: Just after 8pm last Thursday the tanker was heading into Milford Haven, scheduled to dock at the Texaco oil refinery.

A pilot officer from the harboured boarded the tanker to help guide in the final difficult stretch.

But within 15 minutes of the pilot boarding the tanker she had hit a sandbank and the pinnacle of a rock outcrop about half a mile from St Ann's Head.

A detailed inquiry, carried out by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch, will determine just why the disaster happened and make recommendations to avoid another.

Q: Who were the crew and captain of the tanker?

A: The crew and the captain of the tanker are from Russia. The captain speaks English.

Q: What international flag was she sailing under?

A: The Sea Empress is a Liberian registered vessel. This a "flag of convenience", sometimes called an "open register".

The ships never have to go to Liberia. There is a vicious civil war there at the moment.

The "flag" was set up after the Second World War by American lawyers to attract business and make money. The "flag" is essentially run by a company in New York.

Owners use flags of convenience for a variety of reasons. At the worst extreme it is to get round safety regulations. The worst flags of convenience have poor or non-existent ship inspection facilities.

Under a British register, there would be a barrage of safety inspections and rules.

Another reason for sailing under a convenience flag is to avoid company tax and save on registration fees.

Q: Who actually owns the Sea Empress?

A: Not a clear matter. Its owners are listed as a company in Limassol, Cyprus, called Seatankers Management Company Ltd.

The listed business company, set up for the Sea Empress purchase, is called Alegrete.

Cyprus is recognised in the international marine business as a classic tax haven. The majority owner of Seatankers is a Norwegian called John Fredriksen.

The ship is managed from an office in Glasgow, belonging to Acomarit Marine Services which employs and pays the crew.

The company which chartered the vessel is French, called Dreyfuss Energy.

The spilled oil cargo belongs to the American multi-national, Texaco.

Q: Was the ship up to standard?

A: Yes and no. International recommendations made after recent oil tanker disasters pointed out the need for double-hulled vessels.

Essentially this would mean that if the outer shell of the ship was holed by rocks, its cargo would remain protected by the inner shell.

The Sea Empress is a 1993 single-hull design, built in Spain. There is no international enforcement of double hull designs.

From the beating she is taking at St Anne's Head, some experts believe a double-hull would have made little difference. Others believe that recent evidence from double-hull ships which have grounded, shows the design would have avoided disaster here.

Other than design, the Sea Empress is assumed to have passed international inspections.

Evidence of such inspections will be part of the inquiry. The Department of Transport publishes a monthly list of foreign flagged ships detained by the Marine Safety Agency in UK ports. The Sea Empress has not, according to the DoT, appeared on its list.

The inspections, however, are random, not all ships are inspected.

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