All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Sinking ships

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An oil tanker entering second narrows

An oil tanker entering Second Narrows

There is much talk about the improved safety procedures of modern shipping and ship construction. According to these claims, the fear of an oil spill in Burrard Inlet or elsewhere on the BC Coast are exaggerated.

What is seldom mentioned is the fact that the ownership structure of the shipping industry is completely cloaked behind flags of convenience. This means that the integrity of the ships or of ship procedures is impossible to verify, even by law enforcement people. There is a credibility gap between the claims and the control structures, which gives no confidence in the ability of Canada to regulate the tankers, let alone claim payment in the event of a spill.  Another reason for my opposition to the proposed dilbit pipelines, whether Kinder Morgan or Northern Gateway.

I realized this while reading Rose George’s latest book, an account of her days on a container ship entitled Ninety Percent of Everything. (George is also the author the famous, and much beloved by me, 2008 The Big Necessity, a book about human waste).

Writes George (from page 81 onwards):

Most ship-owners operate decent ships that are safe and pay their crews a decent wage. But if you are unscrupulous, there is no better place to hide than behind a flag [of convenience]…

This ease was best exposed by the oil tanker Erika, which broke up off the coast of Brittany in 1999, polluting 250 miles of French coastline. The tanker had been chartered by the French oil giant Total, but its owner was unknown…by the end, French investigators found twelve shell companies standing behind the ship and its “beneficial owner”. Many of the comnpanies were a brass plate in a Maltese or Monrovia street…

Total, [the eventually identified owner] Savarese, and RINA, the Italian classification society that had certified the ship as seaworthy, were convicted of moral end environmental damage by a French court in 2008. An appeal two years later upheld the decision in a devastating 487-page ruling that is one of the best autopsies of not only a ship but also of the shady practices of some ship-owners including Savarese, who was found to have knowingly skimped on the quality of the steel used to repair Erika (RINA classed it safe). The striking thing for the investigators was not just the complexity of the ownership structure but how easy it was to put in place…Total has already paid out nearly 200 million Euros to injured parties…[but] the flag state of Malta, which had overall responsibility for Erika’s seaworthiness, pleaded diplomatic immunity.

[Since then], checks and balances have been strengthened and improved. My hosts [at Lloyd’s Ship Register] were courteous. They offered to help my research in any way possible and kept their promise. They were persuasive.

Yet there are numbers to puncture that persuasion. In 2001, 63 percent of all ship losses at sea were registered to only thirteen flags of convenience…Matters had slightly improved in 2009: only 58 percent of ships lost at sea belonged to thirteen flags of convenience. But there are suspect registries that are not classed as flags of convenience by ITF, such as Sierra Leone. Add these, and 70% of ships lost are flagged out.

George, Rose 2013. Ninety Percent of Everything: inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate. Picador: New York.

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