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The PRESTIGE accident: what is the European Commission doing about it?

On Wednesday 13 November 2002, in stormy weather conditions, a serious accident occurred with the oil tanker "PRESTIGE", which was sailing off the West Coast of Galicia. Six days later, the ship structure collapsed and the tanker broke into two. It happened some 100 miles off the Spanish and Portuguese coast and a significant part of the tanker's cargo was spilled into sea. In total the ship had 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel on board. In this special edition of the Energy and Transport in Europe Digest you will find all the facts of the accident with background information on what the Commission is doing about it.


Direct link to Green Paper on Security of Energy Supply
Green Paper on Energy

Direct link to the White Paper on European Transport Policy

White Paper 
on Transport 


The accident

The oil spill

The cause


The Erika I package

The Erika II package

Phasing out of single hull oil tankers


What are the rules about ports of refuge?

What is the level of damage of this accident, compared to Erika?

What additional measures will the Commission now propose?

Will the available compensation mechanism be sufficient to compensate the damage?

The Council has not taken up the Commission's proposal on an extra Fund (COPE) to guarantee full compensation in all incidents. What has happened with the proposal?

What other measures are available to help the victims?

How is the Commission helping in the clean-up?


The accident

On Wednesday 13 November 2002, in stormy weather conditions, a serious accident occurred with the oil tanker "PRESTIGE", which was sailing off the West Coast of Galicia. It was reported that the ship, with 77.000 tonnes of heavy fuel on board, was in danger of sinking because of a large crack in the starboard side of the hull. The Spanish maritime authorities airlifted off the crew, with the exception of the master and two other crewmembers who stayed on board and who later on received the assistance of a tug.

Several thousand tonnes of the heavy fuel oil cargo was spilled into the sea and is now causing pollution off the Spanish coast. More oil is drifting towards the Iberian West Coast.

Upon request of the owner and his insurer, the Dutch salvage company "SMIT" took control of the vessel. The ship was towed to sea, and while the discussions were on-going on where it could find a safe haven to transfer its cargo to another ship, the situation deteriorated on board.

On Tuesday morning, 19 November, the ship structure collapsed and the tanker broke into two. It happened some 100 miles off the Spanish and Portuguese coast and a significant part of the tanker's cargo was spilled into sea. In total the ship had 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel on board.

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The oil spill

The type of oil carried by the "PRESTIGE", is very persistent and difficult to clean and is similar to the oil that was carried by Erika. But Erika was a smaller ship carrying 35,000 tonnes, of which 20,000 tonnes were spilled. Hence, the "PRESTIGE" carries a lot more of this dangerous cargo. It is not yet clear how much oil has been spilled into the sea, but the first estimations by experts indicate that it might be some 15,000 tonnes.

This oil is now moving towards the Iberian coastline and it seems the Spanish coast will be the most affected. The coming days will show whether the large quantities of oil that went down with the wreck - to a depth of 4,000 metres - will stay there, given that heir cargo tanks are still intact.

The EU co-operation mechanism for responding to this type of pollution incidents is in place and several Member States have already offered assistance to the Spanish authorities.

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The cause

The tanker "PRESTIGE" sailed under the flag of the Bahamas. The ship's operator was established in Greece and the classification society in charge of the periodical safety inspections was the American Bureau of Shipping.

The precise cause of the accident cannot be assessed with certainty at this moment. The Commission services have written to the UK, Greece, Latvia and Russia to enquire about Port State inspections during recent calls of the ship to ports under the jurisdiction of these countries. The crew at some point reported that the ship would have collided with a floating object. However, this is difficult to verify. 

What is known is that the "PRESTIGE" was a 26-year old single hull tanker constructed in Japan. On the basis of the double hull regulation, adopted by the Council and the European Parliament following the ERIKA incident, this ship was to terminate its operation by 15 March 2005 at the latest. (The same rule was adopted at an international level and therefore applies world-wide.) The ship was thus clearly approaching the end of its life cycle.

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Maritime Safety in the web site of Energy & Transport DG 

Overview of adopted and proposed legislation

Maritime safety. Background and Summary

MEMO: "Erika, two years on" (PDF)

Erika 1 package (PDF)

Erika 2 package (PDF)

Commission report for the Biarritz European Council of the Community's 
strategy for safety at sea (PDF


Since the catastrophe of "Erika", which ran aground on 12 December 1999 polluting almost 400 km of the French coastline, the European Union has made considerable progress towards improving maritime safety. The adoption of the measures of the Erika I package and most of those of the Erika II package was a major step towards putting effective rules into place to increase maritime safety and to counter the risks of oil spills. Thanks to these measures substandard ships and floating rust buckets should disappear from Europe's waters within the next two years.

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The Erika I package

'Erika I' addresses the most serious gaps in the maritime safety rules revealed by the oil spill of December 1999:

  • First, it strengthens the existing Directive on port State control. The number of thorough inspections of ships in EU ports has been greatly increased. Over 4,000 vessels considered to represent particular risks will be subject to mandatory structural inspections each year. Ships repeatedly found to be in a bad condition will be black-listed, and refused access to EU ports.


  • Second, it strengthens the existing Directive governing the activities of classification societies, which conduct structural safety checks of ships on behalf of flag States. The quality requirements for classification societies have been raised. Approval to operate within the EU will be conditional on continued meeting of these requirements and the performance of the classification societies will be strictly monitored. Failure to meet the standards will result in temporary or permanent withdrawal of the Community approval to operate on behalf of EU Member States.


  • Third, it brought forward the timetable for the worldwide phasing out of single hull oil tankers. Double hull tankers offer better protection for the environment in case of an accident. Because of this, IMO had decided that only double hull oil tankers should be constructed as from 1996. However, the gradual replacement of single hulls by double hulls was spread over a very long period ending in 2026. The EU insisted to accelerate this process, which the maritime world accepted after tough negotiations. The industry has followed quickly and double hull tankers now represent almost half of the world tonnage. The last single hull tankers will be banned from EU waters by 2015 according to the new international and EU standards.


The detailed timetable for the phasing out of single hull tankers as provided in the EU Regulation is attached in Annex.

Timetable for implementation of the Erika I package

These three measures were adopted by the European Parliament and Council in December 2001. The EU Member States are in the process of implementing the measures into their national law, which will be completed by mid-2003 at the latest. The sole exception concerns the port of Rotterdam which has obtained a six-month extension on the requirement of implementing greater controls in ports.

The Nice European Council in December 2000 nonetheless called on the Member States to implement the measures earlier. The Commission therefore expects the Member States to begin work immediately on legislative and administrative transposition measures and to start recruiting the vessel inspectors needed to carry out the new measures.

The Commission, for its part, plans to publish a blacklist of substandard ships in the Official Journal at the beginning of next year, ahead of the entry into force of the Directive on port control. The Commission will also step up its monitoring of classification societies and, where necessary, propose that their recognition be suspended.

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The ERIKA II package

'Erika II' measures provide the practical solutions to underpin the "Erika I" measures:

  • First, with the creation of a European Agency of Maritime Safety (EMSA) to monitor the effectiveness of EU maritime safety rules. Member States and candidate countries are under increasing pressure to apply a number of new safety requirements, and to harmonise their inspection and control procedures. The new agency will support their efforts by collecting information, maintaining a maritime safety database, auditing classification societies, and organising port state control inspections in the Member States. It will also facilitate exchanges of good practice between Member States and provide technical assistance to the Commission in all fields relating to maritime safety and the prevention of marine pollution. Pending a decision by the European Council on the location of the agency, the Commission will provisionally host it in its own premises in Brussels.


  • Second, with a Directive which establishes a notification system for improved monitoring of traffic in, or passing through, European waters. Member States will be given strengthened powers to intervene when there is a threat of accident or pollution. Ships in EU waters will be required to fit automatic identification systems for the automatic communication with coastal authorities and voyage data recorders (black boxes) to facilitate accident investigation. The Directive will improve procedures for the shared use of data about dangerous cargoes, and allow ports to prevent the departure of ships in extreme weather conditions. It will also require each maritime Member State to establish places of refuge for ships in distress.


  • Third, by drawing attention to payment of compensation to victims of oil spills and proposing to improve the current international mechanism in this area. The Commission proposed to raise the upper limits on the amounts payable in the event of major spills in European waters (up to EUR 1 billion from the current ceilings of EUR 200 million), and to ensure that adequate penalties are imposed on those who cause pollution damage by negligent behaviour.


This proposal did not result to EU legislation, but has triggered a substantial revision and improvement of the international oil pollution compensation system, the IOPC Fund. An agreement on an international fund, essentially serving the same purpose as the COPE Fund is scheduled for adoption in May 2003.


Timetable for implementation of the Erika II package

The first two measures were adopted by the Parliament and Council in June 2002.

The Regulation setting up the Maritime Safety Agency, entered into force in August 2002 and the Commission has already initiated the appropriate administrative mechanisms for the Agency to be operational in 2003. Pending a decision on its final location, this Agency will be provisionally located in Brussels.

The Directive on the monitoring of maritime traffic must be implemented by Member States by February 2004

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Phasing out of single hull oil tankers

(as established in article 4 of the EP and Council Regulation 417/2002)

No oil tanker shall be allowed to operate under the flag of a Member State, nor shall any oil tanker, irrespective of its flag, be allowed to enter into ports or offshore terminals under the jurisdiction of a Member State after the anniversary of the date of delivery of the ship in the year specified hereafter, unless such tanker is a double hull oil tanker:

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Maritime Policy in the web site of Energy & Transport DG 

The web site of the European Parliament

Bernard Poignant's report on stability standards for vessels 

Carlos Ripoll's report on safety rules and standards for passenger ships 


(1) What are the rules about ports of refuge?

Under international law there are co-operation obligations for the ship and obligations for States to take adequate measures and to inform and co-operate with other States and persons concerned. But there is no obligation to provide shelter to ships in this kind of situations.

After the Erika accident, the Commission proposed rules on places of refuge. In the traffic monitoring directive (part of Erika 2) it was agreed that all Member States shall develop plans on how to deal with this kind of situations and inform the Commission of these measures.

According to the directive "such plans shall contain the necessary arrangements and procedures to ensure that ships in distress can immediately go to a place of refuge subject to authorisation of the authorities". This was agreed this summer and has to be implemented before February 2004. Clearly, ports of refuge is one of the areas where an anticipated implementation is needed. The Commission services will initiate appropriate action, in co-operation with the European Maritime Safety Agency, to take the matter forward.

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(2) What is the level of damage of this accident, compared to Erika?

The level of the total damage depends on many factors. First of all it depends on the amount and type of oil released. In this respect, it may be compared to the Erika accident. In fact the Prestige carried more than double the amount of oil compared to Erika, but whether all of this will end up in the ocean is not clear. It is possible that most of the oil that has sunk with the ship may stay in the tanks. Given the high pressure at 3,600 metres depth and the low temperatures, it is possible that the oil will never float to the surface.

Of course, much depend on where the oil that is already spilled goes. The oil is spread over a large area and therefore a large part of the coastline is likely to be affected. But before we know what areas are hit and what sort of damage and losses it creates, it is simply not possible to give any figure or even rough estimation of the total costs.

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(3) What additional measures will the Commission now propose?

Loyola de Palacio, European Commission vice-president in charge of transport and energy, has already written to all Member States' Ministers asking them to ensure an accelerated application of the ERIKA packages, as was indicated by the European Council of Nice.

Furthermore, the Commission had already decided to accelerate:

  • The publication of an indicative black-list of substandard ships that would have been denied access to EU ports under the new Port State Control Directive

  • The establishment of the European Maritime Safety Agency. Despite the fact that the European Council was not able to agree upon the Agency's location, the Commission decided to set it up provisionally on its own premises in Brussels. The Commission has conveyed the first meeting of the Administrative Board, scheduled for 4 December 2002, and is currently finalising the selection process for the nomination of the Executive Director.

The Commission also envisages to:

  • Come back, if the revision of the international oil pollution compensation system (the IOPC Fund) fails, to its proposal for a separate EU liability and compensation system.

  • Review current maritime law provisions in view of regulating and possibly limiting transport of dangerous goods by sea in the Exclusive Economic Zone (200 miles from the coast lines). This revision may include specific routes, refuge ports and other type of safeguards.

In addition, the Commission intends to write to the EU Ministers and to the International Maritime Organisation, to propose additional safety measures for the transport of the extremely polluting, "heavy fuel" oil. A requirement to carry heavy fuel in modern double hull tankers should be introduced as a crisis measure, until the double hull regulation has reached its full implementation. It is important to have such rules covering not only ships coming to EU ports, but also ships that pass in transit close to Member States' coasts.

It is not acceptable that the most polluting type of oil is carried on board the oldest and least safe tankers. It is striking that the tankers involved in the last three accidents that have polluted EU waters (the Erika, the Baltic Carrier and the Prestige) have all carried heavy fuel oil.

Already before the "Prestige" accident, the Commission has decided to make a proposal on penal sanctions on pollution from ships.. This measure will cover accidents as well as deliberate pollution. The Commission's proposal is scheduled for next year.

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(4) Will the available compensation mechanism be sufficient to compensate the damage? (This covers only the international system-not possible EU support)

This type of incidents is covered by the international oil pollution compensation system, as laid down in two conventions: the CLC Convention on shipowners liability and the IOPC Fund (FIPOL). Both Spain and Portugal are covered by this international regime.

This means that the shipowner will be responsible in the case of the Prestige up to around EUR  25 million, and the Fund (FIPOL) will pay up to EUR  180 million, irrespective of fault. The compensation is thus paid by the shipowner's insurer (CLC) and the world's oil companies (FIPOL). The limits have already been raised by 50% but this agreement that was reached two years ago will only take effect on 1 November 2003.

It is not yet possible to estimate the total damage by the incident.

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(5) The Council has not taken up the Commission's proposal on an extra Fund (COPE) to guarantee full compensation in all incidents. What has happened with the proposal?

It is true that the Council has so far refused to discuss the Commission's COPE Fund proposal, since Member States have considered that it would be more appropriate to establish a similar mechanism at international level. But it is also true that the Member States have been very active in achieving this.

The Supplementary Fund, which was developed following the Commission's proposal for a COPE Fund, has been agreed, but not yet formally adopted. The Diplomatic Conference adopting the Fund will take place in May 2003. After that it will take some time to complete the ratification procedure before it enters into force. This new fund will raise the maximum compensation considerably. The figure is not yet clear, but the Commission has argued it has to be EUR  1 billion.

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(6) What other measures are available to help the victims?

The EU Solidarity Fund has recently been adopted following the floodings in Germany and Austria. It is supposed to cover major disasters where damage amounts up to EUR  3 billion or exceed 0.6% of the gross national income of the Member State concerned.

In the fishing sector, Council Regulation (EC) No 2792/1999 laying down the detailed rules and arrangements regarding Community structural assistance in the fisheries sector specifically allows Member States to institute intermediate compensation for fishermen.

The Commission is currently investigating whether any of these measures could be of relevance for improving the compensation of victims.

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(7) How is the Commission helping in the clean-up?

Through the Community Mechanism for Civil Protection and following the request of the Spanish authorities, the Commission immediately launched a formal request for assistance of specialised vessels for recovery of heavy fuel oil. This request, following Spanish instructions was first (14 November) directed to the Netherlands, United Kingdom and France and secondly (15 November) to all Member States.

France, also in the framework of a Regional local plan (Biscay Plan), sent a specialised vessel that arrived on scene on 16 November. The Netherlands sent a specialised vessel that arrived on scene on 19 November. Other specialised vessels from other EU countries are on standby.

An urgent written procedure was launched (approved on Friday 15 November), to enable the sending of a Community task force, if requested by the Spanish authorities.

The European Commission - Civil Protection and Environmental accidents Unit - remains in close contact with the Spanish authorities, and since the morning of 19 November, with the Portuguese authorities.

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The contents of this digest are prepared by officials of the Energy and Transport DG and represent their personal views on the subject matters. These views have not been adopted or in any way approved by the European Commission and should not be relied upon as a statement of the Commission or the Energy and Transport DG.

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