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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




Interview With Mark Schapiro: Troubled Waters

Mark Schapiro travels to Galicia, Spain

FRONTLINE/World's Mark Schapiro travels to Galicia, Spain, one year after the sinking of the Prestige.
FRONTLINE/World's 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 disasters.

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?

Schapiro interviews volunteers about the oil spill clean up efforts.

Schapiro interviews volunteers about the oil spill clean up efforts.
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.

... 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 reporting?

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?

Schapiro reads Spanish newspapers

Schapiro with camerawoman and co-producer Camille Servan-Schreiber.
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.

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 sank.

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 circuitous routes.

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 recovered?

I had heard there were documents related to the Prestige's condition, but that they were under seal [by Spanish authorities].

Schapiro meets with Spanish authorities

Schapiro meets with Spanish authorities to assess the damage from the Prestige.
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 a bag.

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 industry?

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 with oil.

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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