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The Spanish coast is now threatened by the biggest oil spill in history. Predictably, as much time is being spent on figuring out who is to blame as is being spent on cleanup efforts. At issue are the “flags of convenience” that allow ships to be registered in countries with which they have only a marginal connection. The failure to crack down on this practice will only ensure more maritime disasters in the future.

The story behind the Spanish disaster is all too typical. The Prestige, a 26-year-old, single-hulled tanker, was traveling from Latvia when it encountered gale-force winds and rough seas off the coast of northwestern Spain. The weather split the ship’s hull, but neither Spain nor Portugal would let the Prestige enter their ports, fearing an environmental and political backlash if the ship’s condition deteriorated. Instead, it was towed out to sea, where five days later it cracked in two and sank some 215 km off the Spanish coast.

Prior to going down, the ship leaked about 5,000 tons — about 15 percent — of its cargo of fuel oil. When it finally sank, it still contained most of its 20 million gallons of fuel oil — nearly double the load of crude oil carried by the Exxon Valdez, the ill-fated oil tanker that carries the dubious honor of causing the world’s worst environmental catastrophe. Experts worry that the Prestige’s spill could eventually be twice as big as that of the Valdez’s 11.5 million-gallon disaster.

The Spanish government has declined to make an estimate of the economic or ecological damage, but it could be severe. The local fishing and seafood industry feeds much of Spain and does more than $330 million in annual business. It employs tens of thousands of people. In addition to the havoc the oil spill could wreak on the economy, wildlife experts worry about the damage it could cause to the coastal ecosystem. Environmentalists are concerned about the Balearic Shearwater, an endangered bird species that resembles a miniature albatross. There are about 2,000 pairs and they could end up in the oil’s path as they proceed on their winter migration.

The spill has already stained 200 km of Spanish coastline. Experts are hoping that the undamaged compartments sank 3.2 km to the sea floor without breaking. If so, the cold temperature and the pressure at that depth would help the oil congeal and keep it from spreading to the rich fishing grounds nearby. Environmental groups are less optimistic, however. Greenpeace calls the Prestige “a time bomb at the bottom of the sea.”

Unfortunately, it is not the first. A decade ago, the Greek tanker Aegean Sea ran aground off northwest Spain and lost 21.5 million gallons. In 1999, the Erika spilled 10,000 tons of fuel off the French coast, tarring 400 km of the Brittany shore.

After the Erika accident, the European Union passed new inspection measures that require port authorities to check at least 25 percent of all ships coming into dock, starting with older, single-hull vessels. Priority goes to ships flying “flags of convenience” or those registered in countries with lax safety, labor or tax rules. The sinking of the Prestige has prompted the European Commission to urge member governments to speed up implementation of the rules. The new rules have encouraged those ships to avoid EU ports, but as the Prestige makes clear, they do not have to dock to cause damage. Moreover, these vessels are to be phased out of service in 2016, but they can do plenty of damage before then.

The basic principle in these situations is that the polluter pays. That is of little use in a tangled situation like this one. The Prestige is owned by a Liberian company, was flying a Bahamas flag and is managed by a Greek company. Of course, these ships fly “flags of convenience” for a reason. These jurisdictions are so named because they do not subject ships to the rigorous inspections that might keep them out of the water and out of trouble. And owners that use that route are unlikely to pay up when their ships go down.

The governments involved have been quick to point fingers. Madrid blames Gibraltar, claiming that the ship was headed there, a charge that the British, responsible for the government on the enclave, deny. Spain and Portugal have exchanged accusations over who is responsible for the sinking, since neither was willing to let the Prestige take refuge. In retrospect, the decision to tow the vessel out to sea, rather than bringing it into port and unloading its cargo, now looks like a mistake. We will only know how big a mistake in the weeks ahead, as the world waits to see whether the Prestige will leak its remaining cargo into the sea.

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