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
In the course of reporting on the Prestige, FRONTLINE/World's Mark Schapiro obtained documents that indicated the aging tanker was in unsound condition several months before setting sail on her final journey.

Many of these documents are now under seal in a courthouse in Spain, where they are evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation pertaining to the Prestige disaster, and will likely be introduced as evidence in a civil lawsuit in New York federal court involving the Spanish government and a classification society, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Classification societies inspect and classify ships. Once a ship passes inspection and is classified as seaworthy, it is insurable. Most ships will not travel without insurance. If a classification society sees serious problems on board a ship, it can inform the owner that classifications will be withheld until the problems are fixed. The ultimate responsibility belongs with the owner, but the classification society is a key bulwark against substandard ships hitting the oceans loaded with toxic cargo.

The Spanish government, which is attempting to reclaim the billions of dollars in damages caused by the Prestige's oil, has sued the American Bureau of Shipping, alleging negligence on ABS's part, asserting that the company bears significant responsibility for the tanker's setting out to sea in the first place. ABS has countersued the Spanish government, asserting that the government's decision not to supply the Prestige with a safe harbor worsened the effects of the oil spill.

See the fax from Captain Esfraitos Kostazos to ABS detailing problems with the Prestige and a letter from ABS about the case.


From June 30 through October 30, 2002, the Prestige was stationed on the outskirts of the Russian harbor of St. Petersburg. The ship's then-captain, Esfraitos Kostazos, faxed a letter on July 23, 2002, to the ship's owners in Athens, submitting his resignation and demanding he be replaced "as soon as possible" because of his concerns over the unsound conditions on board the Prestige. In his letter, Captain Kostazos made reference to repairs he had requested repeatedly from the moment he boarded the Prestige in Kalamata, Greece, on June 7, 2002.

Then, on August 16, 2002, Captain Kostazos sent a fax to the company that had a contract to inspect the Prestige: the American Bureau of Shipping, based in Houston, Texas. In Kostazos's fax to ABS, he listed nine points of concern about the vessel, including cracked and corroded beam parts in a ballast tank, leaking engine and nonworking boilers, and other deficiencies. ABS claims it never received the fax.

Kostazos was replaced as captain a month later by Apostolos Mangouras, under whose command the tanker sank.

See the fax Captain Kostazos says he sent to ABS before the Prestige sank.

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The American Bureau of Shipping is one of the leading classification societies in the world.

ABS has held the contract to inspect and monitor the Prestige since it was constructed in 1976 at a Japanese shipyard. In May 2002, ABS conducted an annual inspection of the tanker in Dubai just six months before she sank: At that time, ABS classified her as seaworthy.

FRONTLINE/World's Mark Schapiro asked ABS about Captain Kostazos's fax regarding the Prestige; ABS said that they had conducted an independent audit and could find no evidence that the fax from Kostazos to ABS was ever received. ABS responded in detail about the case and explained its role in the maritime industry. According to ABS, a classification society's powers are limited -- it is a ship's owner who has control over a vessel and is responsible for notifying ABS of any problems and for maintaining the vessel. Furthermore, they claim that the Spanish government is to blame for the environmental damage caused by the Prestige because it refused to grant the ship access to a sheltered area.

Read exactly what ABS said about the Prestige case in this letter to FRONTLINE/World.