Frontline World

SPAIN - The Lawless Sea, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Lawless Sea"

Interactive Atlas

Troubled Waters

The Case of the Prestige

Regulation, the Environment, Labor




The Paper Trail - Examining the Case of the Prestige

ABS logo

12 December 2003

Mark Schapiro
Deputy Editorial Director
Center for Investigative Reporting
131 Steuart Street, Suite 600
San Francisco, California 94105

Dear Mr Schapiro,

ABS regrets that it has been unable to arrange an on-camera interview with you for your report on the Prestige. However, we welcome this opportunity to respond to the many questions you have raised in order to clarify the role of classification societies in general, and of ABS in particular.

You will understand that, due to ongoing legal action, we are limited on what we can say at this stage.

As I am sure you are aware, ABS is a not-for-profit classification society. ABS is specifically authorized by United States law to class vessels of the United States. In the case of the Prestige, a Bahamian-flagged vessel, ABS performed its classification and statutory roles pursuant to Bahamian law.

Certain points must be emphasized. At an early stage ABS conducted a technical analysis of the casualty and ABS requested an unprecedented, independent, external audit, carried out by IACS in December 2002-January 2003 with observers from the European Commission, Bahamas, IMO and Intertanko in attendance. Spain was invited to attend, but did not send an observer. The IACS audit looked at of all ABS' survey activities related to the Prestige and did not find any significant anomalies. We have consistently acted in a transparent manner and have maintained open communication with the various authorities investigating the casualty.

Much information can be found on the ABS website dedicated to the Prestige, including the results of surveys and details of the casualty. Notably the role of ABS is set out in a further attachment (The Role of Classification and the Class Surveyor) which should help you better understand the function of a classification society. It also includes a detailed explanation of the process that begins in the shipyard and continues throughout a vessel's service life. I urge you to review this information, as it will address some of the points you raise.

From the perspective of ABS, many incorrectly believe that the powers of the classification society are much wider than they are. In reality the role and responsibility of the class society is very limited and forms only one part of a maritime safety net in which the shipowner is the most important member.

It is the shipowner who has total control over a vessel, including the manner in which it is operated and maintained. Class societies are neither detective agencies, assigned to root out every possible shortcoming, nor policemen with wide ranging powers of enforcement. Classification is still voluntary and its effectiveness depends upon the shipowner, and other interests, disclosing problems with a vessel, not covering them up.

Throughout a vessel's life, the shipowner is an integral part of the survey process. The owner must notify the class society of any condition which might affect class. If there is the least question, the owner should notify class and schedule a survey to answer any questions.

It should also be emphasized that class Rules do not cover every piece of structure or item of equipment on board a vessel, nor do they cover operational elements.

It must also be emphasized that a class surveyor may only go on board a vessel once in a twelve month period, for the annual survey. At that time it is neither possible, nor expected that the surveyor scrutinize the entire structure of the vessel or its machinery. The survey involves a sampling process, for which guidelines exist based upon empirical experience. The survey is intended to allow ABS surveyors to determine whether the society's Rules have been followed.

Despite frequent public pronouncements by other parties to this incident, ABS prefers to mount its arguments in the court. We look forward to the opportunity to do so as we remain convinced that based on all the facts it will be determined that ABS is not responsible for the Prestige casualty.

In the meantime, we would caution Frontline and others in the media to carefully and fully verify all assertions they present, particularly in matters such as this, where the hard-earned reputation for excellence and integrity of our not-for-profit organization is unjustifiably called into question.


Stewart H. Wade
Vice President

Responses to Questions

Q1. What role has ABS played over the course of the life of the Prestige, since it was constructed in 1976?

This vessel was built in 1976 to ABS Rules, as they applied at the time, and had been surveyed to ABS Rules throughout its entire service life, at least through its last survey in May of 2002. As an ABS classed vessel it was subject to a recognized survey regime. Notably the class surveyor only normally attends the vessel once in a twelve-month period for the required Annual Survey and can therefore only attest to the condition, according to his judgment, at that time. The last annual survey of the Prestige was conducted over a period of 11 days in Dubai in May of 2002, six months prior to the casualty.

On those occasions that an ABS classed vessel sustains structural or machinery damage in the course of its operations - which every ship will at various times throughout its life - an ABS surveyor attends the vessel, if and when notified by the owner, to verify that repairs are carried out in such a manner that the vessel is brought back into compliance with our class Rules. It is important to emphasize, that responsibility for the maintenance and repair of a classed vessel falls solely upon the shipowner, because only the shipowner has day-to-day control of the vessel and knowledge of its condition.

In addition, every two and one half years the vessel undergoes an intermediate survey that involves closer scrutiny of its structure. Every five years it is subject to Special Survey, which requires the drydocking of the vessel and extensive survey of its structure as specified in the applicable ABS Rules for survey after construction. The last Special Survey of the Prestige was conducted in Guangzhou, China in April of 2001, over a period of 46 days, reflecting the increasing rigor of these inspections as a vessel ages.

The Prestige was also subject to the Enhanced Survey Program, adopted by all members of the International Association of Classification Societies, and as required by the SOLAS and MARPOL Conventions. This program imposes even more stringent close up survey requirements.

Q2. What is ABS' response to the Spanish government's assertion that the company bears significant responsibility for the sinking of the Prestige?

Bearing the true role and responsibility of the class society in mind, the ABS response to the Spanish Government is clear cut: Spain is wrong to claim that ABS has any responsibility for the Prestige casualty. ABS has investigated all facts presently available to it as thoroughly as it can and has determined that its surveyors diligently performed the surveys on the Prestige in accordance with ABS rules. Furthermore, presently available evidence is not sufficient to establish with certainty the initiating cause of the damage. Theories abound, the principal of which have been addressed in detail in the previously published ABS Technical Analyses Related to the Prestige Casualty which is available from the ABS web site.

Q3. What are the central assertions of ABS' counter-suit against the Spanish government?

ABS believes that in refusing to grant the Prestige access to a sheltered area, the Spanish Government is almost wholly responsible for any pollution that resulted from the actual sinking of the Prestige. Although there is a suggestion that some cargo did spill from the Prestige when it initially suffered damage, this was only temporary and was corrected by the counter ballasting actions taken by the master of the vessel. However, by refusing safe harbor or a sheltered area, the Spanish Government placed the Prestige in a situation where it was certain to break up in heavy seas. ABS also claims, amongst other things, that the Spanish Government violated the applicable Spanish law and International Conventions that impose upon it a duty to minimize pollution.

More importantly (and as numerous experts, observers and governmental bodies have publicly stated), Spain itself bears the ultimate responsibility for the Prestige, because the sinking of the vessel, and the related major oil spill, were the direct result of actions taken by the Government of Spain to force the Prestige away from shore where it was certain to break apart. I am attaching a copy of ABS' counterclaims and defenses in the New York litigation for your easy reference, where the details of Spain's misconduct are detailed

Q4. I have obtained a copy of correspondence sent to ABS ('ABS Marine Services') from the Prestige while moored in St. Petersburg, Russia. We are including this fax and the information it contains in our broadcast. Dated August 16, 2002, it is a fax sent from the then-captain of the ship, E. Kostazos, expressing serious doubts about conditions on his vessel-including corrosion and cracked beam parts, non-working engine parts and other troubles on board. We would like you to respond to this fax, which indicates that ABS was made aware of conditions on the Prestige three months before the ship set sail on its final journey-and three months after the annual inspection conducted by ABS surveyors in Dubai in May. Did ABS respond to the information contained within this fax?

ABS was only made aware of the existence of the fax - and the events described in the fax - following the recent reports that appeared in the Spanish press. ABS has no evidence that the fax was ever transmitted to ABS. Nor, it should be added, did the independent audit of ABS' files, undertaken soon after the Prestige casualty, uncover this fax.

The copy of the fax we have seen shows that it was transmitted to the Greek owners but we have seen no evidence, if the document is genuine, that it was ever sent to ABS or arrived at an office of ABS. To date ABS has only had access to the copy of the fax referred to in the Spanish press, even though the stamp on the document showed it to be a formal copy released by the Spanish court of inquiry in January 2003, some 10 months before it was made public.

Even if the fax is genuine, it would be most probable that it was not sent to ABS, since the normal practice is for a master to communicate any findings of damage, wear, corrosion or other factor that may influence the vessel's continued maintenance in class to the owner of the vessel. The owner is then required to instruct the class society to attend the vessel at the first available opportunity to determine if the noted shortcoming equates to non-compliance with the class society's Rules. If so, then appropriate repairs must be made to the attending class surveyor's satisfaction.

At no time subsequent to the vessel's annual survey in Dubai in May of 2002 did the owner or manager of the Prestige notify ABS of any deficiency or request attendance of the vessel by an ABS surveyor.

The items in the fax are not very descriptive and are too vague to address with any certainty. Any number of pipes could be involved in the seawater lines (#3) and numerous pipes could be involved in the discharge lines (#7). The survey status of the vessel shows two saltwater service pumps, which can be used to feed the fire pumps, an emergency fire pump, and a fire, bilge and ballast pump. Any of these pumps could be the fire pump with the pressure that is "not normal" (#8).

We will not attempt to address each of the nine items in the fax, in fact as noted, some are too vague to be thoroughly addressed. We will point out that the boilers were surveyed and substantial repairs were made to the boilers in China in May 2001. If the crew did not properly maintain or operate the boilers, the problems noted would be the result of improper maintenance or operation.

Item number 7 relates to oil discharge lines, without clear identification of the many lines that could be involved. But it should be noted that if the "oil discharge lines" had been blinded, the vessel would not have been able to fulfill its function as a lightering vessel in Saint Petersburg. The various parties loading and off-loading cargo would have protested this condition; the vessel would then have been put off hire until such time as the defect had been corrected. The ability to move cargo was important to the operation for the vessel and the owners. It is difficult to understand that they would have tolerated blockage of the discharge lines.

Q5. The fax was written after previous expressions of concern about the condition of the vessel, dating back to the first week of June, in Kalamata, Greece. Did ABS attempt, at any stage subsequent to the inspection in May, to provide warning, admonition, or recommendation to the vessel's owner, insurers or flag state, Bahamas, as to ways in which perceived flaws in the vessel might be corrected? What is ABS or other class societies' responsibility in such situations, when flaws are reported subsequent to inspections?

Usually a master will communicate any findings of damage, wear, corrosion, etc., to the owner of the vessel. It is the owner that is required to instruct the class society to attend the vessel at the first available opportunity. If damage, etc., results in non-compliance with the class society's Rules, appropriate repairs must be made to the attending class surveyor's satisfaction.

At no time subsequent to the vessel's annual survey in Dubai in May of 2002 through until the time of the casualty, did the owner or manager of the Prestige notify ABS of any deficiency or request attendance of the vessel by an ABS surveyor.

Q.6 From June to October, 2002, there were repeated indications that the Prestige was in questionable condition, and not prepared to go to sea. These observations and requests for repairs begin in June 2002-just over two weeks after the Prestige was inspected by ABS in Dubai (mid-May). They include:

- June 2002: requests by Captain Kostazos, beginning when he took command of the vessel on June 8, asking of the owners that serious repairs be done on the vessel. Those requests were repeated during the voyage's subsequent journey from Kalamata, Greece to St.Petersburg.

- July 2002: Captain Kostazos, in a letter to the owners in Greece, indicates his desire to resign as commander due to the substandard condition of the ship, and his lack of confidence in its seaworthiness. He asks to be replaced.

- 16 August 2002: Captain Kostazos sends a fax to ABS Marine Services indicating at least nine problems in the structure and the engine of the Prestige-including corrosion and cracked beam parts.

- 13 September, 2002: Captain Kostazos is replaced by Captain Apostolo Mangouras.

- November 2002: A Danish pilot boards the Prestige to navigate the vessel through the narrow straits separating Denmark and Sweden. In later reports, the Danish pilot expresses grave misgivings about the seaworthiness of the vessel (though I am aware he makes no move to stop its progress).

- November 14, 2002: A Spanish rescue official, Serafin Diaz, is airlifted onto the Prestige after its initial distress signal, and says that the tanker's engine was riddled with problems, and it was a 'substandard' vessel.

- November 19, 2002: The Prestige sinks.

In the summer and fall of 2002, there was mounting concern among those in contact with the Prestige that it was in troubled condition, and not seaworthy. These concerns begin in June 2002-before the vessel arrives in St. Petersburg and just weeks after the ABS inspection in Dubai. What, if anything, did ABS miss during its inspection of the Prestige?

Firstly, if the master of the vessel had communicated various concerns to the owner/manager of the Prestige the owner/manager did not notify ABS about anything Captain Kostazos may have reported. If this is correct, the owner may have violated its affirmative obligation under ABS Rules, which require an owner to inform ABS of any class-related shortcomings.

Secondly, our own technical analysis and the IACS external audit of all ABS' survey activities related to the Prestige, carried out shortly after the Prestige incident, did not find any significant anomalies which would indicate fault on the part of ABS.

ABS has learned from reliable sources that the Prestige apparently added an additional welder to its crew after the ABS survey in Dubai. ABS still does not know why the vessel required these welders. Again, the owner/manager did not notify ABS about any problems requiring extra welders.

To repeat our earlier statement: "Throughout a vessel's life, the shipowner is an integral part of the survey process. The owner must notify class of any condition which might affect class. If there is the least question, the owner should notify class and schedule a survey to answer any questions."

If what Capt. Kostazos has told you concerning his conversations with the vessel owner is true, the owner may have violated its affirmative obligation under our Rules, which required it to inform ABS of any class-related shortcomings. As a consequence, it is possible that the vessel was operating in contravention of ABS Rules at the time of the casualty. The pending judicial proceedings may well shed additional light on this issue.

Q7. Who does ABS feel is responsible for the sinking of the Prestige?

There are two points here - 1) the initial damage done to the vessel and 2) the sinking and resulting environmental damage. It is possible that we will never know what caused the initial damage to the hull of the Prestige although several investigations are seeking an answer. Hypotheses range from a blow from a heavy object, to weaknesses caused to the hull by lightering operations in St. Petersburg.

However, there is no doubt in our minds that the subsequent loss of the vessel and environmental damage is due to the actions of the Spanish authorities. As we pointed out above, any cargo which did spill from the Prestige when it initially suffered damage was only a temporary problem, as the vessel was quickly righted by actions taken by the master on board the vessel.

It was only when the Spanish authorities forced the Prestige out into the North West Atlantic in heavy seas and some 24 hours later that structural degradation resulted in the vessel leaking further oil. That the vessel survived for 6 days under these conditions before finally breaking apart, despite the initial structural damage and despite being stressed to limits far in excess of its design capability, is proof positive that the vessel was not in a "substandard" condition as has been alleged.




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