Community all at sea over controls on oil tankers

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST joint meeting of EC environment and transport ministers ended in a shambles in Brussels yesterday, despite abundant evidence that Community environment laws on oil transportation are not stringent enough and provide no guarantee that another disaster like that caused by the Braer oil spill off Shetland would be prevented.

Public opinion throughout the Community was incensed by the catastrophe, and steps are already being taken in the Community to protect especially vulnerable areas. But action at Community level seems impossible for now, because of the competing trade interests. Yesterday a number of proposals were gamely made at the emergency meeting of ministers, only to be put on hold. One was for the extension of the widely accepted 'polluter pays' principle, which hits the pockets of those responsible for wrecking the environment. 'No-go areas' protecting environmentally sensitive waters could be extended or a system of obligatory routing for ships agreed, with stiff penalties for the transgressors. Compulsory pilotage through treacherous straits was also mooted, and there were calls for more rigorous training and safety standards, backed up by spot-checks on ships in port.

The Netherlands, Denmark, Greece, Germany and Britain are among the countries slow to support tougher legislation. Ministers are, however, looking at ways better to enforce existing rules, but it is still not clear how much can be done at Community level and how much by individual member states.

'It is quite clear that we are all dissatisfied with the present situation and we all feel strongly that something has to be done,' said John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

A common view among some ministers is that that many accidents are due to human error. While a tightening of safety standards would help, 'we have to realise we cannot prevent everything', said Ian Lang, the Secretary of State for Scotland.

In Italy, a top-level committee on Venice meets today to discuss proposals to ban petrol tankers from the Venice lagoon, under a threat by the Environment Minister, Carlo Ripa di Meana, to resign if they are rejected.

The minister, who left his job as EC environment commissioner in protest over preparations for the Earth Summit, wants tankers without double hulls to be banned from the lagoon immediately and others later on, after other ways have been developed to supply Porto Marghera, the main southern European oil terminal and petrochemicals complex on the lagoon.

Spurred by the Shetlands disaster, Mr Ripa di Meana and his French counterpart have signed an agreement effectively banning tankers from the narrow Strait of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia. The two governments declared their ports were closed to tankers that passed through the straits.

LONDON - The Shell petroleum company said yesterday that about 20 per cent of the world's tankers are sub- standard and should be forced out of business, AP reports. The oil company argued in a report that the ensuing rise in freight rates would allow shipowners to replace ageing vessels with newer, safer ones and to invest in better maintenance and crews.