After the Erika disaster, the European Union is at the forefront of maritime safety
Since the Erika ran aground, the European Union has made considerable progress towards improving maritime safety. Adoption of the measures of the Erika I package and most of those of the Erika II package is 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 two years. "The EU now has one of the best sets of maritime safety rules in the world, and these measures must be put into place with the utmost resolution and speed. The Commission, for its part, will continue its efforts and propose follow-up measures to complete these rules and banish the spectre of a new Erika disaster," said Loyola de Palacio, Commission Vice-President responsible for energy and transport. It is now up to the Member States to apply the new rules adopted by the EU with full force.
On December 12, 1999, the Erika, a 25 year-old single-hull oil tanker flying the Maltese flag and chartered by TOTAL-FINA, broke in two some 40 nautical miles off the southern tip of Brittany, polluting almost 249 miles of French coastline. The damage caused to the environment and the exceptionally high cost of the damage to fisheries and tourism make the Erika oil spill one of the major environmental disasters of recent years.
The wreckage of the Erika aroused much public concern about the safety of maritime transport. It also highlighted the risk presented by old, poorly maintained ships and the need to reinforce and harmonize European rules on maritime safety and the control of ships in ports in particular, going further, where necessary, than International Maritime Organization guidelines and standards.
After the accident was reported the European Commission prepared measures in record time designed to increase maritime safety off our coastlines substantially. Three months later, on 21 March 2000, the Commission adopted a first series of proposals, known as the Erika I package, which was quickly followed, in December 2000, by a second set of measures known as the Erika II package.
The Erika I package provides an immediate response to certain shortcomings highlighted by the Erika accident. It steps up controls in ports, monitors the activities of classification societies and speeds up the timetable for eliminating single-hull tankers.
Adoption of the Erika I package, however, is only one step in the Community action program. The Erika II package contains measures that are just as essential: establishment of a Community fund to compensate the victims of oil spills up to €1 billion, closer monitoring of traffic in European waters, and creation of a European maritime safety agency. Examination of these measures is well under way in the European Parliament and the Council. Policy agreement on the proposals concerning the Community traffic monitoring system and creation of a European maritime safety agency could be obtained before the end of the year and enter into force
While the European Union has a full battery of laws to protect its coastlines, the effectiveness of Community laws will depend on due and proper application by the Member States.
Erika I package: the three measures adopted
Stepping up controls in ports
The current Directive on port State control has been substantially amended in order to step up controls in ports, which so far have proved to be inadequate.
Thus, ships that have been laid up on more than one occasion due to poor condition and fly flags of convenience will henceforth be banned and refused entry into EU ports by virtue of a blacklist published by the Commission.
In addition, all vessels posing a risk will be subjected to more stringent obligatory annual inspections. Unlike ordinary inspections, which may just be a relatively superficial examination of the condition of the vessel, the expanded inspections provided for by the new Directive will include a systematic, detailed check of a number of vital elements of a vessel. Any corrosion or structural problems, for example, that might be the cause of accidents such as the one involving the Erika, will thus be detected more easily. These inspections will be determined by the age and category of the vessel (e.g. tankers more than 15 years old such as the Erika), and also by the vessel's "target coefficient", which measures the potential risk presented by a vessel, and criteria such as the fact that the vessel is flying a flag of convenience or members of the crew have complained about conditions on board or the poor state of the vessel as seen from the number of deficiencies highlighted and the number of times it has previously been laid up.
At present EU port State control inspectors board around 10 to 12 000 ships a year, but of this number only around 700 ships are subjected to real, thorough inspections. The new Directive guarantees expanded annual inspections on more than 4000 vessels thought to pose a risk.
These new rules and regulations should also make for a considerable increase in the number of vessel inspectors in ports and help the Member States to meet the obligatory inspection thresholds set by the Directive (25% of vessels entering port). In practice this minimum threshold is not achieved by all Member States (see Annex I) and the Commission has had to initiate infringement procedures against some of them.
The European Parliament has helped in no small measure to improve the effectiveness of the Commission's proposals. It has called for the introduction, for example, of obligatory black boxes on all ships calling at EU ports, based on a timetable from 2002 to 2007. The absence of a black box on board a vessel should lead to its being laid up in port.
Greater control of the activities of classification societies
The rules contained in the current Directive concerning classification societies have been beefed up to make for greater control of the activities of these private organizations which play a crucial role in maritime safety.
The job of the classification societies is to check the structural quality of vessels. Nearly every country in the world delegates a good part of its inspection powers. The new rules will
provide a better guarantee of the quality of classification societies at European level. They introduce in particular:
a new sanction: suspension of Community approval for a year, which can lead to complete withdrawal of approval if the deficiencies resulting in suspension persist;
the requirement of good safety and pollution control performance before Community approval is granted;
stricter quality criteria, in particular compliance with certain procedures in the event of a switch of class and greater transparency in the communication of information on vessels in that class.
Without waiting for the new measures to enter force, the Commission is already taking a close look at the activities of approved classification societies. It has already carried out a number of audits designed to establish whether organisations approved by the Member States meet the requirements of the Directive. These audits have helped to limit the scope of the approvals granted to certain organizations, given their real capacity.
Elimination of single-hull tankers
On average single-hull tankers present a greater risk of pollution in the event of an accident and are often old ships. The main objective of the measure is to protect the coastline of the European Union against the increased risk of pollution presented by the imminent arrival of single-hull tankers banned from American waters under OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act) but authorized to operate under current IMO legislation.
The recently adopted regulation provides for a general ban on single-hull tankers by 2015 at the latest, in accordance with a timetable for their gradual phasing-out (timetable shown in Annex II).
Timetable for implementation of the Erika I package
The measures adopted as part of the Erika I package will enter into force in around 12 months' time. 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.
Erika II package: further measures
Establishment of a European maritime safety agency. Within the space of a few years several safety standards have been established and Member States have been obliged both to comply with them and to approximate their inspection and control procedures. The European maritime safety agency will support the action of the Commission, the Member States and candidate countries. It will assess the effectiveness of maritime safety measures put in place. The main task of the Agency will be to collect information, operate databases on maritime safety, monitor classification societies and organise inspections in the Member States in order to check the conditions of port State control. It could also assist national inspectors in their work and help make for an exchange of experience that would benefit all concerned. The Regulation setting up the agency has just been definitively adopted.
Greater safety in maritime traffic and more effective prevention of pollution by ships: a proposal for a Directive provides for the establishment of a system of notification which also covers vessels which do not call at Community ports. It increases the powers of intervention of Member States, in their capacity as coastal states, where there is a risk of accident or a threat of pollution off their coastlines, even beyond their territorial waters. It imposes the carriage on board ships in Community waters of automatic identification systems (or transponders) as well as black boxes similar to those used in aviation in order to help enquiries in the event of accidents. The Directive sets out to improve procedures concerning the transmission and use of data relating to dangerous cargoes and to increase the development of common databases. Given that most shipwrecks occur in extreme weather conditions, the Directive also provides for the possibility of preventing ships from leaving port in such conditions. Finally, it makes it compulsory for each Member State to have ports of refuge for vessels in distress. This Directive has just been formally approved.
Improvements in the existing schemes concerning liability and compensation for pollution damage: today the people hit hardest by the oil spill, hoteliers and those working in the maritime sector, have still not been fully compensated for their losses. This is due to the limits of the current international scheme (in particular FIPOL) when the cost of pollution exceeds the present ceilings. The Commission takes the view that it is unacceptable for Europeans not to be properly compensated several years after a serious accident. To prevent situations of this kind arising in the future, the Commission has proposed that a fund for the compensation of oil pollution damage be set up, with a global ceiling of €1 billion, to compensate victims where the current ceilings of €200 million are exceeded. The Commission's proposal also provides for Member States to impose fines for negligence on the part of anyone involved in the transport of oil by sea.
An accident such as the one involving the Erika can happen at any time. Given this risk, the Commission's proposal offers a solution which can rapidly be put in place and will guarantee that victims are fully and promptly compensated. In this context, the Commission hopes that the Member States' decision to pursue discussions within the IMO rather than at European level will result in an international agreement that comes close to the objectives set by the Commission. The Commission, for its part, intends to work towards a solution that is most in the interests of Europeans and the victims of oil spills.