Old tanker in Muuga port alarms Europe

  • 2002-12-05
  • Aleksei Gunter

Estonia came under intense international pressure last week to conduct an extraordinary safety inspection of an oil tanker laden with 53,000 tons of crude headed for Rotterdam.

Greenpeace activists surrounded the tanker Byzantio, moored in the port of Muuga, in their dingy boats Nov. 29, while French diplomats demanded that Estonian authorities conduct a thorough inspection of the aging ship.

ETA news agency reported that two of some 20 Greenpeace activists from Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Norway were arrested after a failed attempt to block the Byzantio in the port of Muuga.

The activists also reportedly tried to block the tanker in the Danish straits Dec. 2.

Diplomats, meanwhile, also stepped up the pressure. One French minister, speaking to BBC World News, even threatened to block Estonia's accession drive to the European Union if authorities failed to carry out their demands.

The Byzantio, a 26-year-old single-hulled ship built in Norway and freighted by Crown Resources AG, was described by Greenpeace activists and French media as a "rustbucket" and a "floating dump."

The pressure came just after the Prestige, a single-hulled tanker hauling 77,000 tons of crude, sank off the coast of Spain, spilling its cargo and causing tens of millions of dollars in environmental damage to the coastline of Galicia.

Crown Resources AG is a Swiss-registered company that works on commission for Alfa Group, a Russian oil group, and which also freighted the Prestige.

Tarmo Ots, acting head of the media relations department of the Estonian Maritime Administration, said the thorough inspection carried out due to the pressure from the French diplomats by Estonian and international experts exposed only minor flaws.

"The ship was seaworthy," he said.

Erik Sakkov, Tallinn port marketing director, denied the previous Associated Press reports that the Byzantio was going to Singapore and would pass by France, which suffered from a spill similar to the Prestige in 1999.

"The Byzantio came from Rotterdam to take 53,000 tons of black oil and went back to Rotterdam after that," said Sakkov. According to Sakkov, there is no sense in banning all single-hulled tankers from Estonian ports since some 60 percent of the tankers in the world are of that type, and that neighbor countries' ports, especially St. Petersburg, would simply take over the operations with such ships.

The Byzantio, said Estonian officials, successfully passed an inspection carried out in Rotterdam by Det Norske Veritas quality control on Nov. 19 before departure.

However, in Tallinn experts from the same company revealed four minor faults Nov. 28 that were not grounds for detention.

According to Det Norske Veritas, the previous check that took place in Dublin, Ireland on Aug. 9 exposed eight deficiencies on board of the Byzantio, and the ship was arrested for seven days.

The flaws Det Norske Veritas exposed during the Tallinn inspection concerned a deficiency in one of the ship's three auxiliary engines, while the other recommendations involved the improper operation of fire doors in the accommodation unit.

"Repairs on the fire doors are already ongoing, while the auxiliary engine is not to be used until repairs are completed. None of the findings affect safe operation of the ship," Det Norske Veritas said in a report.

But international pressure will persist. France and Spain stated last week that they will begin to unilaterally inspect all dangerous, single-hulled vessels older than 15 years without waiting for EU action on the issue.

After the 1999 disaster off the coast of France, the EU adopted a series of strict measures to combat aging tankers, but the measures do not come into affect until July of next year.

Heiki Kranich, Estonia's environmental affairs minister, supported the idea of his French and Spanish colleagues and sent a letter to the communications minister suggesting a ban on single-hulled vessels older than 15 years from Estonian ports.

"The environmental risks related to single-hulled oil tankers are extremely high in connection to the Prestige accident," reads the letter.

For Estonian ports, serving oil tankers older than 25 years is an everyday practice, according to Kranich.

Kranich also addressed the environmental affairs ministers of the 10 Baltic Sea countries and officials from the European Commission, asking them to consider the problem of old tankers. The discussion on banning these in every port of the Baltic Sea might start at the Dec. 11 - 12 EU summit in Copenhagen.

For its part, Estonia still remembers the Alambra, the Greek oil tanker that leaked in the port of Muuga on Sept. 16, 2000. The 240-ton oil spill cost the state 2 million kroons (128,000 euros) and caused significant environmental damage.