The Multinational Monitor

July 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 6

G L O B A L   S I G H T I N G S

Courting Tanker Disasters: Irish Fault Oil Companies

An Irish tribunal on July 25 blamed last year's tanker tragedy-which took 50 lives-on oil company negligence, prompting the government to seek tougher international safety standards. Calamity ;truck the French tanker Betelgeuse in January, 1979 at the Gulf Oil terminal in Bantry Bay, Ireland when a fire and a series of explosions demolished the tanker and much of the jetty, killing the crew and three others.

The 200 meter high flames at Bantry Bay died away after 20 hours, but controversy still blazes over the cause of the accident and Gulf's response to, it. The lengthy report of the Irish Tribunal of Inquiry faults Total Compagnie Francaise de Navigation for tailing to maintain the tanker in proper condition and accuses Gulf of reacting slowly to the emergency and engaging in a cover-up later. "There's tremendous outrage against Gulf and Total,' says Patricia Cullen, spokeswoman for the Irish Embassy in Washington.

The tribunal concluded that "a seriously weakened hull due to inadequate maintenance, and an excessive stress due to incorrect ballasting" caused the ship to buckle. Total made "conscious and deliberate decisions" which allowed the hull to weaken, the report charges. The French state controlled company had planned to sell the tanker. Oil companies routinely halt maintenance on ships they intend to sell, according to Arthur McKenzie, director of the Tanker Advisory Center, Inc. in New York

"The Betelgeuse is an example where the standards for follow-up and maintenance just aren't satisfactory. That vessel was allowed to deteriorate," says McKenzie. Widespread decay in the world's tanker fleet may lie behind what is fast becoming an epidemic of disasters. A survey by London's Salvage Association found 31 explosions between January 1979 and April 1980-a substantial jump over 20 such incidents in the 1974-78 period.

McKenzie suggests that "midlife" has caught up with many of these tankers, first built in response to the boom in world oil trade about a dozen years ago. He asserts tankers start showing stresses after ten years. Builders "minimize construction costs, but the end result is vessels that are fragile" and require expensive repairs.

The Irish tribunal drew up 45 recommendations to forestall future disasters. Some are covered by a 1978 protocol of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), but most countries-Ireland included-have yet to ratify the protocol, which was only approved by IMCO under threat of unilateral action by the U.S. Senate. "IMCO tends to be dominated by oil interests, shipping interests," says specialist Chris Koch, an aide to Senator Warren Magnuson (DWash.) adding that, like most international bodies, it moves slowly.

"You can't get 105 maritime nations to agree on anything controversial," agrees McKenzie. "That's why you must take unilateral action." The tribunal recommends that national authorities enforce stronger measures in their ports without awaiting international ratification or depending on enforcement by the countries where the vessels are registered. It also proposes more thorough compliance inspections by the industry's private classification societies.

Although it assigned Total the "major share of the responsibility for the loss of the ship," the tribunal cited a number of problems in Gulf's operation of the jetty without which the crew's lives would probably have been saved. It further alleged that Gulf employees forged log entries and gave false testimony to conceal the dispatcher's absence from the began. Gulf is still examining the report, but Total has already tried to shift the blame to Gulf, claiming that a fire on the jetty-not flaws in the tanker structure -caused the explosion.

The Irish government is considering legal action against the companies, and it plans to bring its recommendations before IMCO and the European Economic Community-but some industry observers are skeptical about the prospect for reform. One comments, "Every time there's a major tanker casualty, a few more people get excited. But excitement is rarely translated into action by international authorities."

- Mark Anspach

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