The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A new black tide

Nov 25, 2002

On Tuesday, November 19, the oil tanker Prestige split in two off the coast of Spain. Before sinking, it spilled 4,000 to 5,000 tons of fuel oil, soiling hundreds of miles of coasts. But there are still 70,000 tons of oil in the broken hull of this tanker today sitting on the bottom of the ocean depths. The amount in the tanker is almost double the amount of oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

On the high seas, this very heavy fuel will pollute fish beds, and if the oil slick is pushed by the dominant west winds and it hits the coast, there will be a disaster.

But it's already a catastrophe for the environment of this part of the Spanish coast, and for an entire part of the population which lives from the sea: fishermen, oystermen and those in the tourist trade. Fishing has already been prohibited on a part of the shore. The cost hasn't been calculated yet, but from all indications, it's going to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars and more likely billions.

Bad weather wasn't the sole cause of this sinking. There certainly were storms off of Spain for several days before, but they weren't worse than usual. An oil tanker, particularly one as large as the Prestige, is supposed to be able to navigate much bigger storms.

But a crack opened up on the starboard side of the steel hull, which spread to 150 feet before the ship split in two, simply because of the wear and tear of the metal and rust.

Despite its name, the Prestige was in reality only one more rust bucket, built 26 years ago – which is considered very old for such a ship. Today its owners say that this was to have been its last voyage before going to a demolition yard in Turkey. But in reality we don't know exactly where it would have gone. Maybe Gibraltar? Maybe Singapore? Probably its destination would have depended on the price of oil some place.

What's certain is that the Prestige flew the flag of the Bahamas, that is to say, one of the countries which offers unchecked and mostly untaxed registration to ships from other countries under its flag. Its captain was Greek and his crew was Asian, which doesn't mean less competent, but underpaid and without the least social or union protection. A completely typical situation.

Who did it belong to? A Greek shipowner? But Greece declared that the Prestige belongs to a Liberian company called Mare Shipping Inc., administered by Universe Maritime Ltd. There's also the possibility it is a Dutch company ... In any case, no small businessman could have fit out and chartered such a ship.

To see how ridiculous the situation is, we can compare the figures: in 2001, tiny Bahamas had a fleet of 45.4 million tons, while the United States had only 11.4 million tons. The record is held by Panama, with 169.3 million tons, then Liberia with 76.7 million tons, compared with the great powers like Japan, with 18.5 million tons; Germany, 7.9 million; and France, 6.8 million. In fact all the ships flying the flag of the Bahamas, Liberia, Panama, Malta, etc., belong in reality to the big capitalists, especially those of the United States, Germany or France.

This situation is widespread because this is what the capitalists of the entire world want, and because the states of the entire world go along with their desires. It's as simple as that.

Those truly responsible for these ecological disasters aren't some shady businessmen, some bad sheep. They are some of the biggest capitalists in the world. The owner of the Exxon Valdez was the biggest U.S. oil company. The authorities bustle about and declare that they are going to take the necessary measures. To do that, they would have to take on the law of money which rules ... on the seas, as on land. And that they have never done.