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Tanker incident causes scare, outrage

  • 2002-12-19
A tanker carrying 50,000 tons of fuel oil spun out of control and ran aground onto the seabed just outside the Klaipeda port Dec. 12.

The Panama-registered Princess Pia had just left its moorings in the Lithuanian port and was being piloted out into the Baltic Sea when for unknown reasons it spun out of control during a turn and became stuck in the seabed.

Five tugboats unsuccessfully attempted to pull the fully-loaded tanker out of the sands Dec. 12, and finally some 5,000 tons of crude had to be pumped out of the tanker's wells in order to free the 206-meter-long vessel.

Port officials said no oil had leaked into the sea.

Divers who examined the Princess Pia said the outer hull was ruptured in three places, but that the inner hull was intact and not leaking crude.

The pumping process began Dec. 13, according to rescue officials, and continued until Dec. 16, when the Princess Pia finally was able to refloat.

The tanker was successfully towed to a mole of the Klaipedos Nafta complex where it was fully unloaded and underwent further examinations.

None of the vessel's 21-member crew was injured.

The near-catastrophe occurred just a month after the Prestige, carrying 77,000 tons of Ventspils-loaded crude, split in two off the coast of Spain and leaked approximately one-third of its cargo onto the coast of Galicia.

But unlike the single-hull Prestige, the Princess Pia, built in 1979 and owned by the Argentinean company Boldwin Maritime, had a two-skinned hull.

The Prestige disaster infuriated Spain and France, who called upon the European Union to ban all single-hull tankers from entering European ports and approaching the continental coastline within a 200-kilometer zone.

Curiously, one week prior to the Princess Pia incident Lithuania's government had sent a letter of support to Estonia's Environment Ministry for Estonia's proposal to place restrictions on single-hull tankers using the Baltic Sea.

In Lithuania the near-catastrophe caused strong political backlash.

President Valdas Adamkus in a statement accused Lithuania's rescue and emergency services - the Extreme Situations Management Commission, Environment Ministry, Klaipeda State Seaport Directorate and Civil Defense Department - of incompetence, claiming they tried to hide the accident from the public and failed to take all measures to prevent the near-catastrophe from happening.

"The president said that there were attempts to conceal the fact of the accident," the president's office said in a statement.

Baltic News Service reported that Adamkus was particularly dissatisfied with the Environment Ministry, which failed to inform him of the accident as soon as it happened on the evening Dec. 12, as well as with the Extreme Situations Management Commission, which gathered for an emergency meeting only 16 hours after the incident.

With presidential elections in Lithuania being held Dec. 19, Adamkus needed to talk tough about the incident, analysts said.

The largest Baltic Sea tanker catastrophe occurred 21 years ago when a British vessel, the Globe Asimi sailing under the Gibraltar flag, broke into two near Klaipeda after suffering damage during a storm. Some 16,500 tons of crude spilled into the Baltic Sea and polluted 80 kilometers of coastline.