Court acquits Prestige three

The three judges who had been hearing the eight-month-long Prestige trial decided in November that they had heard nothing to support the prosecution's allegation of criminal culpability on the part of the three defendants. The defendants were accused of being responsible for the loss of the 26-year-old tanker off the northwest coast of Spain on 19November2002.

The vessel, which was carrying 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, broke in half some 250nm off the coast, releasing its cargo into the sea and polluting about 1,700 km (1,056 miles) of coastline in Spain, Portugal, and France.

"No one knows exactly what caused the disaster," said presiding judge Juan Luis Pia as he read out the judgement of the provincial court of A Coruna on live television on 13 November, 11 years after Prestige had sent out its first distress call. "There is no criminal responsibility," he announced.

The court found clear evidence that the vessel had structural problems but said it had not been told when these problems had occurred or why.

The vessel's former master, Captain Apostolos Mangouras, his former chief engineer, Nikolaos Argyropoulos, and the former head of the Spanish government's merchant marine department, Jose Luis Lopez-SOFS, were all acquitted of the charge of having caused environmental damage.

The court had heard that the master had wanted permission to bring the stricken ship to shelter close to the coast but that the Spanish authorities had considered this course of action too risky and ordered the vessel to be towed out to sea.

In this respect, moreover, Mangouras was found guilty of however, said it wanted the Spanish courts to recognise that the behaviour of the Prestige's crew had resulted in criminal damage to the environment.

Greenpeace, which blamed the disaster on the authorities' decision to have Prestige towed out to sea, said the judgement showed that pollution disasters could be caused in Spain without there being any consequences from Spanish authorities and that this was unacceptable.

"The sentence shows that, in Spain, we are not capable of passing judgement on an environmental disaster or to condemn or to defend the environment," said campaigns director Maria Jose Caballero.

Pedro Trepat, lawyer for the local environmental defence alliance, Nunca Mais (Never Again), claimed after the judgement, "This ruling is carte blanche for the government to mismanage another crisis."

The international shipping community, in the shape of the London P&I Club, and tanker operators' body Intertanko, took a positive view, hailing the ac¹uit-tal of the two seafarers for their alleged environmental offences but expressing disappointment at Mangouras's conviction for disobeying Spanish authorities.

The London P&I Club went further, however. It pointed the finger at Lopez-Sors, expressing surprise at his ac¹uittal when he had refused to allow the vessel to take refuge close to the coast and chose instead to send it out to sea "towards an oncoming storm with no specific destination".

Steve Roberts, director of management at the club, said: "It is a great shame that the opportunity to learn lessons surrounding places of refuge has not been taken. This situation must be avoided in future."

Safety at Sea 01/2014