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The Loss of the Vessel Prestige off the Spanish Coasts

Statement by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Statement by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Nairobi, 28 November 2002 - The tragic loss of the tanker Prestige off the Spanish coast has again brought into sharp focus the environmental and economic issues surrounding the world's primary energy source, namely oil. It reminds us that it is the people living on the coasts of major tanker and shipping routes and relying on the natural environment for their livelihoods who pay the price when such accidents occur.

The fishermen, whose jobs have been blighted by the oil pollution as a result of the accident, have my deepest sympathy as do those working in industries like tourism who are also facing hardship. I would also like to pay tribute to the organizations, both local and international, and the volunteers urgently involved in the clean up and trying to ensure that the minimum amount of oil washes ashore.

This is not the first tanker disaster. One thinks of the Braer, the Sea Empress and the Erika, to name but three. It will not be the last if we are not finally committed to drastic changes. But it must mark a new and renewed effort to minimize the risks and to properly price the environment within the costs of oil transportation.

The age of some vessels and their technological specifications have also been the subject of intense debate. Ships, for often purely economic costs, are routed closer to shore than may be necessary or through important wildlife areas and habitats. It is clear to me that the price of petrol and diesel at the filling station pump is not reflecting the true environmental costs of oil.

The International Maritime Organization, our sister United Nations organization responsible for shipping and maritime safety, has been working hard to make the seas safer and less vulnerable to spills and accidents. I particularly welcome their efforts to bring in so called 'double-hull' tankers to replace the single-hull ones which are more vulnerable in the event of a collision or accident.

We should, in the light of recent losses, review the timetable for the phasing-in of such vessels. But technology is only as good as the people involved. In recent years there has been a tendency to source crews from countries with the lowest labour costs in order to save money. Ultimately the country from which a crew is hired is not the issue. However we must ensure that they are well trained and with proven, recognized, qualifications.

We must develop a stringent and demanding liability system to encourage tanker owners and masters to comply with higher standards and regulations.

UNEP has developed a network of Regional Seas agreements under which neighbouring countries have agreed to jointly protect their common marine and coastal environments. Countries concerned have also joined regional conventions which provide a framework under which 'neighbours' can send and receive assistance in the case of an emergency like the one off the coast of Spain. Indeed specific "Emergency Protocol" have been developed, specifying the procedures for sending vessels, airplanes, oil-fighting equipment and personnel from one country to another.

UNEP is administering and is active in the coordination of 15 such Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans and I will be asking our experts to look again at these to see where these measures could be strengthened and even greater cooperation between maritime states, forged.

For more information please contact: Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, E-mail:

UNEP News Release 2002/85

Thursday 28 Nov 2002
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