A Student Perspective: Major oil tanker maritime disasters and policies

Vessels carry an estimated 90% of the world trade and seafarers are to that effect essential to international trade and the international economic and trade system. There are at least 1.2 millions seafarers worldwide and around 200,000 seafarers in the European Union. During the last century and especially after some maritime accidents like the RMS Titanic (1912) it was important for some organizations such as IMO to introduce some safety legislation not only for human lives but also for the environment. There are many conventions introduced but the most important are: Maritime Labor Convention (MLC), Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Standards of Training and Watch keeping (STCW) and International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships  (MARPOL).

 The problems involving oil tankers concerned the carriers from the beginnings because this type of scale transport was accelerated during a very short time (1950-2005). The weather, the geographical conditions and other objective factors play an important role in maritime accidents. The real environmental catastrophes were caused by shipping accidents involving large oil tankers, with the discharged quantities exceeding most of the times the 50 000 tones, reaching sometimes even the 287,000 tones, as in the case of the Atlantic Empress tanker. The Atlantic Empress was a Greek oil tanker that was involved in two large oil spills. The spills together are the third largest oil spill on record and the largest ship-based spill. On July 19, 1979, during a tropical rainstorm, the ship collided with the Aegean Captain, off Trinidad and Tobago, spilling 287,000 metric tons of oil. The damage incurred from the collision was never completely remedied, and while being towed, the Atlantic Empress continued to spill an additional 41 million gallons (all together being 276,000 tons of crude oil) off Barbados. The Aegean Captain also spilled a large quantity of oil from her tanks. The Atlantic Empress sank in deep water and her remaining cargo solidified. The spill from the two ships fortunately never came ashore. On the contrary, the infamous Exxon Valdez spill ten years later only saw 37,000 metric tons of oil released. We can mention that many accidents that occurred in North European waters during winter time, when the weather is getting worse and the crew members are forced to sail under extremely bad weather conditions. The two biggest disasters in maritime transport are the Erika tanker accidents (1999) and Prestige (2002). From these tanks an amount of 22,000 and 20,000 tons of oil, respectively, has leaked into the sea causing immense damage to the environment, fisheries and tourism industry.

These maritime accidents were the major factor that forms MARPOL convention to appear as it is now. Despite having a well-developed framework in terms of international standards of safety at sea and maritime environmental protection – most included in conventions conducted within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) – many countries and owners continue to break the rules, thus jeopardizing the crew and the environment and benefiting from unfair competition.

Romylos Kanakaris, MA International Maritime Policy 

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