Western Europe’s worst environmental disaster is unfolding at this very moment, but it’s receiving little coverage here in the U.S.–even though a similar disaster could occur at any time in U.S. waters.

The single-hull oil tanker Prestige split in two and sank off the coast of Spain on November 18. Oil slicks, however, are still washing up onto the shores of Northwest Spain and threatening the coasts of Portugal and southern France. Oil is leaking from fourteen cracks in the Prestige’s bow and stern sections–a total of about 33,000 gallons per day, which has formed an oil slick 35 miles long and 11 miles wide above the area where the tanker sank. So-called “experts,” who said that all that heavy fuel oil would solidify when it hit the cold temperature and high pressure 2 miles beneath the sea, were obviously wrong.

Two oil slicks have already washed ashore in the Galician region of Spain, contaminating one of the most productive ocean fisheries and shellfish beds in Europe. The fishermen of Galicia–some 21,000 of them–run out a fleet of boats that is larger than all the rest of the fishing fleets in Europe put together. Most of these boats are family operations, with three, four, and five-person crews. In addition, Galician shellfish gatherers supply Western Europe with a host of delicacies, from crabs, clams, cockles, and mussels, to the exquisite goose barnacle, which is found nowhere else in the world.

All of this food is much appreciated by marine mammals, too, including dolphins, porpoises, and several species of whales–minke, fin, pilot, sperm, Cuvier’s beaked whales, and Risso’s whales–which draw tourist cruises from England, France, and Spain. Galicia’s rocky coast and sheltered, hard-to-reach coves provide some of the best wintering habitat for seabirds from all over the North Atlantic region and Europe, including gannets, razorbills, guillemots, cormorants, puffins, gulls, and petrels.

The effect of the oil has been devastating. The Spanish government closed the Galician fisheries and 1,000 miles of coastline, putting most of Galicia’s population immediately out of work just before the height of the fishing and shellfish season. Environmental groups estimate that 15,000 birds have died so far, including rare and protected species. The Prestige could go on leaking its remaining cargo of 20 million gallons–approximately twice what the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound in Alaska–for years, possibly until the year 2006. Lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill show that it could take more than a decade for the shellfish population to revive, and most of the area’s mammals may never fully recover. At least two threatened bird species will likely become extinct: the Balearic shearwater and Spain’s dwindling population of guillemots. Ditto for Galician family fishermen.

This is terrible news, but most people in the US think it has no bearing on us. After all, we have a law in place–the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (enacted after the Exxon Valdez spill)–that will phase out aging, single-hull oil tankers like the Prestige by 2015. But Europe has the same type of law, enacted after the single-hull oil tanker Erica spilled oil off the coast of Brittany three years ago, and that didn’t stop the current disaster from happening.

Until the ban goes into effect in 2015, the international maritime inspection system is supposed to prevent unseaworthy vessels from carrying oil. In fact, the Prestige has been inspected several times recently, including by the U.S. Coast Guard, which cleared it to sail. In 1991, the Prestige sailed to China to have cracks in its hull welded. Rescue operators who attempted to salvage the Prestige before it sank think that those cracks might have been responsible for the leak, and that the ship split in two along the line of one or more of those welds. Obviously there’s something wrong with the current international inspection and repair system.

Many boats avoid inspections, fines, and needed repairs by sailing under a “flag of convenience” and avoiding harbors with tough inspection systems. The Prestige, for example, was registered in the Bahamas by a company that was incorporated in Liberia, but the ship was managed by a separate company with offices in Greece. It was chartered by Crown Resources, a Russian company that’s registered in Switzerland, but the heavy fuel oil that it was carrying from Latvia to Singapore belonged to a British company. The captain was a Greek, and his crew were Filipino. Sorting out this mess of ownership and liability could take a lot of time.

Also, it will make it hard to assign blame, particularly when the governments of Spain and Portugal made the spill worse. The tanker sprang a leak when it hit a floating cargo container, in either Spanish or Portuguese waters. When the Prestige attempted to sail into a safe harbor to find shelter from stormy winds and high waves and to have the oil pumped off, it was turned away by both Portuguese and Spanish ships. It took a Spanish tug 14 hours to hook a line to the Prestige, which was allowed to drift within five miles of the Spanish coast, leaking oil all the way. The tug then pulled it out to sea and directly into high waves that eventually broke the ship in two.

So who’s responsible? And who has to pay the fine, if any? The cleanup has already cost over $50 million, and will likely run into the hundreds of millions–if not billions–of dollars if the leak continues until the year 2006. The Prestige is only insured for $25 million in cleanup costs. In addition, international maritime law caps the amount a shipowner has to pay at $80 million. The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, funded by oil-consuming nations, would then pay extra costs of up to $180 million. Beyond that, the Spanish government and its taxpayers are on the hook for the rest. They may try to sue the shipowner for more, but one look at the Exxon Valdez judgment, which is still tied up in court, proves that this will be difficult.

In the meantime, Spain, France, and Portugal are attempting to prevent future disasters. They’ve lobbied the European Union to ban single-hull tankers by 2010, instead of by 2015, and to tighten inspections. Currently, half of the 7,000 vessels in the world’s oil tanker fleet are aging single-hull ships, some of them built in the 1950s. Spain has already turned away a single-hull tanker from its waters, provoking an international uproar. The question, of course, is whether this new, more stringent rule can survive a challenge from the oil and shipping industries, which could sue in either an international maritime court or at the World Trade Organization to overturn these more stringent laws in favor of an international standard (likely to be the U.S.’s phase-out date of 2015).

Another way to get around stringent national laws would be to offload oil on the open seas. Shipping companies could sail large, single-hull tankers from regions with less stringent requirements (the Middle East, the Far East, Latin America) to the U.S. or Europe, anchor just outside of territorial waters, and offload the cargo onto smaller, double-hull ships. Notably, the Prestige sank 130 miles off the Spanish coast–far beyond the 12-mile territorial limit–but it has still fouled 880 miles of Spanish coastline (so far).

More importantly, there’s the problem of timely replacement. If no single-hull tankers will be allowed to sail in U.S. and European waters by 2015, ship builders need to begin building the replacement double-hull vessels now, but that’s not what they’re doing. In April 2000, the General Accounting Office released a report prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard that surveyed the U.S. owners of single-hull oil tankers. What they found was that most of these companies are not replacing their tankers at all; they’re taking a “wait-and-see” approach, hoping that the standards will be loosened or that they will be able to work around them. But if the standards remain in place or are toughened, there could eventually be a shortage of tankers to haul the world’s oil. When asked about this, the companies responded by saying that they would charter foreign-owned, double-hull tankers. Of course, those tankers may not be up to U.S. safety standards in other ways, and if foreign companies are doing the same “wait-and-see” routine that U.S. companies are doing, there may not be enough double-hull foreign ships to go around.

More disturbingly, the companies said they would increase their reliance on pipelines to move oil from places like Texas and Alaska to other parts of the U.S., utilizing excess pipeline capacity. This would spread the spill burden to dry land, including some highly populated areas–perhaps even an area near you. A recent natural gas pipeline spill, which killed three people in Bellingham, Washington, has provoked a recent round of legislative fights in the U.S. Senate over pipeline safety.

In addition, a November 2000 oil spill in the Mississippi River from a foreign oil tanker (registered in the Bahamas and owned by a company licensed in Liberia–just like the Prestige) fouled a 26-mile stretch of the Mississippi river delta, home to crabs, spotted sea trout, pelicans, flounder, and over 100,000 shorebirds. The tanker ran aground when its engine exploded; it had passed an inspection in Corpus Christi only four months earlier.

We should view the Prestige oil spill not as a fluke or one-time accident. It’s our future, made more likely by our reliance on crude oil. The Bush administration has shown no sign of embracing alternative energy sources, and has been busy dismantling U.S. environmental laws. The single-hull oil tanker ban may be next.

We ignore the Prestige disaster at our own risk. It could be the biggest environmental mistake we ever make.

A few of the many sources for this article: “As U.S. Single-Hull Oil Vessels Are Eliminated, Few Double-Hull Vessels May Replace Them,” U.S. General Accounting Office, April 2000, GAO/RCED-00-80, pp. 18-20

“Oil spill: Consequences for wildlife,” BBC News, 11/19/02, http://new.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2491965.stm

“Analysis: Vulnerability of single hulls,” BBC, 11/19/02, http://new.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2491451.stm

“Liability rests with Prestige’s shipowner,” Financial Times of London, 11/19/02

“Analysis: A saga of single hulls, double standards and too many flags of convenience,” The Independent, 11/20/02, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/environment/story.jsp?story=353865

“Complex row over sunken tanker,” BBC, 11/20/02, http://new.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2494565.stm

“Pollution expected to devastate Iberian wildlife,” The Independent, 11/21/02, http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=353911

“How oil slick will bring black death to coast’s way of life,” The Guardian/The Observer, 11/24/02, http://observer.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,846371,00.html

“EU to ban single-hull tankers,” BBC, 12/6/02, http://new.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2551721.stm

and “Sunken tanker leaking 33,000 gallons of oil a day,” Associated Press, reprinted in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12/11/02, p. A9.