Kelly Whalen sat down with "Lawless Sea" reporter Mark Schapiro
just before broadcast to talk about his investigation uncovering
the hidden history of the Prestige oil tanker, which sank
off the coast of Spain in November 2002. Schapiro has made a career
of international and environmental corporate investigations, and
his work has appeared in Harpers, The Nation and The
Atlantic Monthly and on television on NOW With Bill Moyers.
He is currently deputy editorial director of the Center for Investigative
Reporting. Schapiro shares some of the challenges of reporting
on the secretive shipping industry and reflects on the possible
causes and concrete effects of one of the world's worst environmental
FRONTLINE/World's Mark Schapiro travels
to Galicia, Spain, one year after the sinking of the Prestige.
How did you become interested in the flags of convenience
system, and when did you begin reporting on the Prestige?
I've always enjoyed going to ports. I like water. I like ships.
You go to a port and you kind of get a sense of some world out
there -- some other horizon. And when you go to a port, you
see these flags [on ships]. And it's always been a little mysterious,
and as time went on, more and more intriguing ... the abundance
of flags from little countries, like Panama, Liberia, Bahamas,
Honduras, Belize, Malta and Cyprus. If you judged by the flags,
you would think that those countries dominated international
trade -- and, of course, they don't. So journalistically speaking,
I always knew there was something a bit off there, and I had
my suspicions. Over the years, I've always kept a very back-burner
file going on international shipping and the flag system.
Then the Prestige sinks on November 19, 2002. I read
this in the newspaper like everyone else and think, "How did
this oil tanker sink?" There were a few references in the press
to the fact that it was a Bahamas-flagged ship and owned by
some Greek owners, but that was sort of it. The coverage was
almost nonexistent. A two-day maximum story in the papers. But
I decided this was sort of interesting, and I started poking
around, looking more deeply into it.
Where did you start?
I was living [near] the South Street Seaport along the East River
in Manhattan. And in this area was a building I passed every day
on my way to work called the Seamen's Church Institute, which
provides legal and medical aid to sailors in the merchant marine.
And one day, shortly after the Prestige went down, I went
in, with no appointment, on impulse really, and I ended up speaking
with their chief lawyer. He told me a bit more about the [Prestige]
... that it was not only flagged in the Bahamas and owned by Greeks
-- the Coulouthros family -- but that it was registered in Liberia.
So then I found out you could not only flag a vessel in a foreign
country like the Bahamas, but the owner of the vessel could in
fact create a legal ownership in another country, which in the
case of the Prestige was Mare Shipping in Liberia. What
that means is you pay the Liberians a very small fee and in return
they give you an address in Monrovia. That added another layer
of obfuscation to the ownership trail.
Schapiro interviews volunteers about the oil spill clean up efforts.
... This started getting interesting. Here was a ship that
went down, causing massive ecological devastation to the coast
and the people of Galicia, and it looked like it was going to
cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. And
yet the question of who actually controlled the vessel, who
was responsible for it, was very obscure.
You've reported on other industries. What was it like reporting
on the maritime business?
It was one of the most difficult industries I've ever reported
on. There were times when I felt like I was dealing with a top
secret Pentagon operation. [There's] incredible secrecy in the
maritime trade itself ... nobody in the business wants to talk
about anybody else because if the next Prestige happens,
it could be them.
Of course, I tried to talk to the owners [of the Prestige]
in Athens, but they wouldn't talk to me. Even their company
spokesperson wouldn't talk to me. Their lawyer wouldn't talk.
[It was] complete invisibility. When you reach your hand out
to identify the responsible party, they evaporate into the thin
air of front companies and foreign flags. The maritime system
is set up that way.
You eventually uncovered documents that indicated the Prestige
may not have been suited to set sail. How did this change your
After many months of reporting, looking at the whole system
as it's organized, I began making contacts with people very
deeply connected to what happened in Spain. I spent a lot of
time in Galicia, some time in Madrid and other parts of Spain,
and talked to many people who had been directly impacted by
the oil spill -- fishermen, mayors, political people, people
involved in the citizen movement Nunca Mais ["never again" in
Gallego, the local Galician language].
Over months and months ... I was able to obtain documents
that [may have] demonstrated who knew what condition this ship
was in. I am at work one day and I go into my mailbox and there's
this white envelope with a handwritten address on it, no return
address. I open it and out drops this photocopy of a fax [written
by] Esfraitos Kostazos, the captain of the Prestige,
in the middle of August 2002, with detailed points on the condition
of the ship. It was addressed to American Bureau of Shipping
[ABS], the major ship inspection company based in Houston that
had the contract to monitor the Prestige's condition.
It was a very urgent fax. It was like, "As I told you before,
I'm going to tell you again, these are the problems on board
the ship." It included serious [complaints about] corroded beam
parts, nonworking parts of the engine and serious questions
that could well have contributed to the disaster that happened
off the coast of Spain. That [fax] was a very important turning
point [in my investigation]. It indicated that the Prestige
had serious problems before taking off on its final journey
... yet nothing had been done to repair them.
What role do companies like American Bureau of Shipping
play in the shipping industry?
ABS is what's called a classification society. They are charged
with monitoring a ship's condition, its state of repair, and
state of maintenance and safety. They do regular inspections.
Then they provide a report to insurance companies, which rely
on classification societies to give them a rendering of what
condition the ship is in, in order to decide how much to charge
for insurance. ABS performs that role as a ship inspector and
has inspectors ... at every major port in the world. It's one
of the top inspection companies in the world. There are about
eight or nine other inspection companies at the top tier, and
there are a whole bunch of other questionable classification
societies that really have very, very low standards. ABS is
one of the better ones, with one of the better reputations.
Schapiro with camerawoman and co-producer
So what you have are entire fleets of ships that have been
inspected by these societies whose opinion on the condition
of a ship is absolutely critical to whether that ship hits the
open seas. They "classify" ships, which makes [the ships] eligible
for insurance. And most ships will not leave the dock without
insurance. Essentially, the classification societies are the
last stop before a vessel goes to sea.
In the case of the Prestige, ABS did an annual inspection
and classified it in May 2002, six months before the Prestige
There's also another curious aspect to the role of ABS. In
addition to representing the Prestige's owners, ABS also
has a contract with the Bahamas to monitor the ships flying
that nation's flag. So in other words, at the same time ABS
was monitoring the Prestige for its owners, they were
also performing oversight for the flag state of the Bahamas,
which is responsible for enforcing basic maintenance regulations
on its fleet. That kind of double duty can create considerable
ambiguity in trying to establish who, in the end, is responsible
when a disaster like the Prestige happens.
Esfraitos Kostazos, the captain who refused to sail the
Prestige, confirmed for you that he had indeed sent the
fax to ABS. How did you track down Kostazos?
I went to Athens and I was able to track down Kostazos through
The first night I'm in Athens, I call him up, and he was a
little surprised. I said, "I'd love to meet with you." And he
said, "We meet tomorrow," and he gave me the address, but he
said, "No camera." Next day, I go with our camerawoman, Camille
Servan-Schreiber, with her camera in her shoulder bag, hoping
to convince him otherwise. We go to that address in the middle
of Piraeus, the port area outside of Athens, buzz the door,
go up the stairs. It turns out it's his lawyer's office. So
we walk in and it's "we don't want any cameras," "why are you
here" and "we don't want to talk to you." We had this very strained
dialogue about shipping ... and essentially Mr. Kostazos was clearly
uncomfortable on the subject of the Prestige. His lawyer
didn't want him saying anything. On the way out we were able
to spend a few minutes with Kostazos, walking down the street
with him without his lawyer.
Even though he performed in a very honorable way, as a captain
should, expressing his doubts about the ship, he was very nervous
about being perceived in the shipping industry as a whistleblower.
He had no intention of being a whistleblower when he sent those
memos [to ABS]. He was just, as a professional, expressing his
misgivings. He said to me numerous, numerous times, "You know,
I have to work in this business. I'm 57 years old, I want to
continue as a captain, I have been a captain for many years."
I told him I appreciated that, but what happened on the Prestige
is a terrible thing and he was the one person who acted honorably
in the whole tale.
He said he'd think about it. So I call him the next day and
he tells me to meet him on Monday. I call him on Sunday to arrange
the time and place and get his wife on the phone; his wife gives
me to his son who says that his father had to leave town very
rapidly and unexpectedly.
Kostazos later told me, "I don't want to speak to history."
Did you find out how the secret document you received was
I had heard there were documents related to the Prestige's
condition, but that they were under seal [by Spanish authorities].
I called Serafin Diaz [the captain from Spain who took control
of the Prestige to steer it out of Spanish waters], who
I had asked at an earlier stage if he had any documents and
he said he didn't or that he couldn't talk about it. But I called
[again] and said, "Listen, hold on, [I've] got a document here
that clearly had to come off the record of the ship -- what's
the story?" And that's when Diaz told me he had taken a second
trip onto the vessel on November 18, 2002. As the ship was listing
violently, rocking like mad, he was ... dropped by a helicopter
[onto the bridge of the ship]. He went onto the vessel ... and
threw everything he possibly could into a big black plastic
trash bag. He said he didn't even have an hour on the ship before
it was really rocking ... . He's up on the [ship's] bridge,
which is three or four stories high. It's a pretty unnerving
experience. Meanwhile he's throwing every document he can into
Schapiro meets with Spanish authorities
to assess the damage from the Prestige.
Diaz took the documents back to La Coruña, the major
port in Galicia. Those documents were then sorted by the Spanish
authorities and immediately entered into a courthouse -- where
they are pursuing criminal proceedings on the Prestige
-- and were [placed] under seal.
Is there any movement to reform the international shipping
The European Union has launched an investigation into the
Prestige, and it's reforming the system by banning single-hulled
vessels, like the Prestige, from docking in European
ports. The E.U. has also been demanding a lot more transparency
in ownership, and they are trying to find means of forcing the
owners to take financial responsibility. The E.U. also has a
system for tracking flags of convenience, and they will inspect
suspicious vessels more carefully.
In Spain, Nunca Mais is a remarkable citizen organization,
which rose up immediately out of the black muck that hit the
Galician coast. Housewives, students, professors, fishermen,
truck drivers, from the right to the left, joined this movement
Nunca Mais. And they've become a very organized, active movement
in Spain, calling for reform in the maritime system and criticizing
how the government handled the oil spill.
Almost twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spill
was released off the coast of Spain when the Prestige
sank. You visited Galicia six months into the cleanup effort,
then returned for the one-year anniversary. Has Galicia recovered
from this disaster?
Six months after the ship sank, you'd walk along these coves
completely isolated, but splattered with black oil from the
Prestige. Volunteers sat there scraping rock by rock,
and you'd look up and there'd be a million of these rocks with
oil like an inch thick. You'd have the moist sea air, and then
this acrid smell, like a gasoline station. Really repugnant.
So the devastation was quite visceral for this place where people
live off the sea.
When I went back [for the year anniversary], some of the beaches
looked cleaner, but the fact is that what we see is often not
what really matters when it comes to marine ecology. A lot of
ecologists, professors and marine scientists are saying Galicia's
marine system will take decades to recover, as happened in Alaska
with the Exxon Valdez. The notion that the area has "recovered,"
[when there's] a marine system traumatized to the extent that
fish either disappeared from the area for months or were all
killed, is ridiculous. Hundreds of thousands of fish and birds
coated with oil died. The plants under the sea are still coated
The devastation is real and palpable; it's not some abstract
question. That's the reason why I did this story.
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