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Making Germany's Coasts Safer

January 9, 2003

Two months after the oil tanker "Prestige" sunk off the Spanish coast, resulting in an environmental disaster, Greenpeace activists are checking Germany's coasts for dangers to its safety.

A scenario environmentalists want to avoid in GermanyImage: AP

It is two months since the oil tanker "Prestige" collapsed off the Spanish coast, and fell apart spilling thousands of liters of oil as a result.

While Spanish and French authorities are quarreling over who is to blame, and villagers and fishermen from the affected countries are still attempting to free large stretches of coast from an ongoing oil slick, a group of Greenpeace activists are out on Germany's waters, looking for possible dangers to the German coast.

Making notes

The Greenpeace activists are located in the narrow strait between the German and the Danish coast. "We want to find out which tankers pass through here. We then drive up closer in dingies and note the name of the ship and its harbour," Christian Bussau from Greenpeace says.

More important, however, is checking how the tanker was made, and whether it has one, or two hulls. "This can reveal how dangerous a ship is. It is this data which is needed to make Germany's and Denmark's coasts safer", Bussau says.

The strait between Germany and Denmark is one of most heavily frequented in Europe. 63 000 ships pass through it every year, among them some 8000 oil tanks. Greenpeace counted 110 tankers in the last three weeks – very often huge ships, at least two decades old, with just one, creaking hull.

Image: AP

It is this type of ship which, according to Bussau, is prone to cracks in its hull and can easily fall apart in the case of an accident: "It is unbelievable how many wrecks sail along here. Yesterday we came across the 'Klements Gotvalgs', a tanker built in 1978 with just one hull – with its 25 years, far too old….Last year, when it was inspected in Canada, they found 21 defects. Today we had the 'Arctic Swan', a tanker which was built in 197 and, therefore 33 years old – a ship which is extremely dangerous".

Repeated warnings

The campaign is not Greenpeace' is first in the area: They inspected the same strait one year ago. Within one month they counted 200 ships which had breached regulations in the strait, including ships which did not sail in the required waterway.

Following the "Prestige"'s accident in Spain, the activists are concentrating this year mainly on oil tankers. Shortly after the disaster off the coast of North Spain, the EU commission revealed a list of dangerous ships – 66 vessels, including 8 tankers. Geenpeace regards this list as insufficient: In order to improve safety in waterways worldwide many more ships should be added to the list. If this is not changed, Greenpeace says, then a dangerous accident could easily happen off the German coast, a disaster with serious consequences:

"Until now the German coast has not experienced such an oil spill. But one day there will be an accident here, therefore we must do everything to prevent this from happening", Bussau says. "If an accident does happen we have to be prepared and need to be able to act so fast, so that it does not lead to widespread oil pollution of the coast".

Ölverschmutzer Vogel, Spaniens Küste droht eine Ölpest
Image: AP

The activists are therefore compiling their data in a list which they will then hand over to the German government and the EU. They are hoping that the European authorities will then add their information to last year's - according to Greenpeace - dangerously insufficient list.