Awash in oil, the Spanish victims of a tanker disaster seek justice from a Texas company

Off the coast of Galicia, a rocky province in northwest Spain, a storm was brewing. Captain Luis Dopico, aboard the tiny Carmen Belen, towed a line of 2,000 hooks through the ocean. He braced against the spray and hoisted up a cord writhing with sea snakes. Ocean life from the Atlantic has supported his family for generations.

But not everybody was riding out the November squalls as successfully. Dopico listened to his ship's radio and learned that an oil tanker, the M/V Prestige, had sprung a leak. "We knew that our future and the future of our children was endangered," he said. "And our blood began to jump."

Longer than two football fields, the rusting Prestige carried 20 million gallons of heavy crude oil--nearly twice the load spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The ship was sailing north past the jagged Costa del Muerte, the Coast of Death, when the hull shuddered with a loud bang. Water gushed through a gaping hole, the engines lost power, and the tanker drifted within four miles of the Spanish coast.

The Haven survived a rocket attack only to fall victim to what one crew member says were slipshod repairs.
Dino Fraccia
The Haven survived a rocket attack only to fall victim to what one crew member says were slipshod repairs.
Texas attorney Anthony Buzbee filed a $300 million lawsuit over the Prestige's sinking.
Daniel Kramer
Texas attorney Anthony Buzbee filed a $300 million lawsuit over the Prestige's sinking.

The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, demanded Spanish officials grant the vessel refuge in port, where the oil could be contained. But Spain refused to risk a harbor. Two tugboats lashed lines to the ship and towed it out to sea, trailed by an unctuous wake. After five days of sloshing in high waves, the Prestige split in half and sank, a mere 130 miles from shore.

Even before the wreck began belching up crude, it had disgorged a formidable slick. The oil curled back to the coast, pushed by gales and surf. Two days after the sinking, authorities in Dopico's village, A Coruña, banned fishing. Three days later, the first black tide struck the town's white beaches, creating what aid workers described as a moonscape.

The oil spill was called the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

More than 4,000 miles away in Texas, the news barely made the headlines last winter--but in the global headquarters of the American Bureau of Shipping in Houston, it was crisis time. ABS is one of the world's largest classification societies--firms that inspect ships to ensure they meet safety standards. ABS approved the Prestige shortly before it sank, and critics say the inspection was deeply flawed.

Houston is now a battleground for a major challenge against ABS. Thousands of fishermen like Dopico have demanded justice. At stake are a billion dollars and, quite possibly, the effectiveness of the very laws that are meant to prevent oil spills.

In a building in Madrid, the government-appointed Prestige Commission is filled with taciturn officials whose purpose seems to be to route inquiries through Byzantine channels that end nowhere. Few people wish to discuss the Prestige because cleanup payments hinge on determining who is to blame. But one government investigator said it's ABS that should start talking. "ABS needs to answer certain questions," said technical expert Francisco Alonso. "It needs to justify why it authorized the security of this ship. And still, from the beginning, it hasn't done that."

Three years ago, the Prestige was lowered into a dry dock in Guangzhou, China, where ABS performed an extensive once-in-five-years inspection. Among other tests, ABS checked out heating coils that were installed in the ship to keep oil viscous, so it could be pumped from cargo tanks. Heating coils can pose a danger to oil tankers. They can speed up corrosion in adjacent ballast tanks, where ships store water to stabilize themselves. By the time ABS inspected the Prestige a year later in Dubai, checking such ballast tanks was an ABS requirement.

Yet according to an audit of ABS, the company never looked at the ballast tanks. The International Association of Classification Societies found that ABS accepted assurances in Dubai from the ship's master that heating coils were not present next to the ballast tanks. One lawyer also said the ABS office in Houston sent the wrong checklist to the inspectors in Dubai, causing them to overlook the tanks. It was in one of these tanks, he said, that the hull of the Prestige first failed.

The lawyer is Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee. Six months after the Prestige hit the ocean floor, he filed what would become a $300 million suit against ABS in Houston on behalf of the oil-drenched Basque region, a Spanish province about the size of New Jersey. The Spanish government filed a similar case eight days later against ABS in New York, seeking another $700 million. Both cases allege ABS caused the oil spill and should pay to clean it up.

To build a case against ABS, the lawyers probably will rely on papers salvaged from the Prestige shortly before it sank. One of them is a fax sent two months after ABS inspected the Prestige by Esfraitos Kostazos, then the captain of the ship, to the tanker's owners in Greece. Kostazos tendered his resignation and demanded he be replaced "as soon as possible" because of his concerns over what he said were dangerous conditions aboard the ship.

He reportedly sent a second, more important fax a month later to ABS in Houston, informing the society of nine concerns with the ship, including problems with heating coils and "cracked and corroded beam parts" in a ballast tank. "That fax is very, very important to this case," Buzbee said. "We can win the case without it, but with it, the case is incredibly strong."

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