Rescue effort fraught with danger

Opinion is divided on the safety of 'flag-of-convenience' ships and the prevention of accidents, writes Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online
Shipping experts yesterday praised the efforts of salvage teams to save the oil tanker Sea Empress, which has run aground off the coast of South Wales. But they warned that any attempts to salvage the ship - which is carrying 130,000 tonnes of crude oil - were likely to be "extremely hazardous".

Meanwhile, the threat of another ecological disaster, following sightings of a two-mile oil slick, has led to renewed concern over the use of "single-skin" tankers.

"The concern is whether moving the vessel would actually cause more damage. It's not looking very good at the moment," said a spokesman for Lloyd's List, the shipping and insurance publication, last night.

"It's not an easy thing to assess, as the tanker will be very slippery. But if anyone can do it, Smittak [the Dutch salvage company] can. That's why salvage crews are very highly paid. It's danger money, really," he said.

Meanwhile, up to 1,000 tonnes of oil were feared to have leaked into the surrounding waters. And the prospect of another ecological disaster hasheightened concern over the use of single-skin oil tankers. Four months ago the Norwegian-registered Borga tanker, carrying 112,000 tons of crude oil, also ran aground in Milford Haven.

Because it was double-skinned, no spillage took place and the vessel was safely refloated soon afterwards.

International Maritime Organisation regulations have specified that all tankers built since the Braer tanker disaster in 1993 have to be double- skinned and that older vessels have to be modified to an equivalent. But this is an extremely expensive procedure. And a glut of oil freight companies means that there is fierce competition with companies having to take jobs at below cost.

One of the ways they reduce overheads is to register ships with a country that has low charges and allows the use of cheap labour. The "flag of convenience" system is growing rapidly. Flag-of-convenience vessels make up about one-third of the world's merchant tonnage, yet account for about 60 per cent of its losses.

"[The Sea Empress] is a flag-of-convenience ship. It's done purely to save money. They don't have strict rules and are therefore cheaper to run," said the Lloyd's List spokesman.

"These were largely Russian crews. They would certainly come cheaper than British seamen. It's all a question of expense," the spokesman said.

The General Council of British Shipping yesterday defended the use of single-skin tankers, pointing out that 80-90 per cent of all shipping accidents were caused by human error.

"Phasing in the double-skin tankers is going to take time and the fact is that if you were to say that from tomorrow there were to be no more single-skin vessels then the whole economy would grind to a halt," a spokesman said.

"And as far as the Russian crew goes . . . if you were to take a list of all the best crews in the world you would probably find the Russians near the top."

"A Liberian flag and a Russian crew are very effective. It was just an accident," said Walter Welch, of the Chamber of Shipping. "Whatever you do you can't remove that risk. Anything that involves going to sea involves a risk."

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