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European Experience in Response to Potentially Polluting Shipwrecks

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Since hydrocarbon fuel powered engines became the norm for ships, each new casualty resulted in one more shipwreck with oil and fuel trapped in it. Some contained more potential contaminant than others—namely oil and chemical tankers. All were destined to suffer from corrosion and to someday release their liquid pollutant. The threat posed by those potentially polluting wrecks has long been neglected. But supertanker incidents and surprise spills from forgotten wrecks brought the problem to the front pages of the media and to the agenda of decision makers.

This paper shows how consciousness of the problem took shape in Europe, and particularly in France, and how a response strategy was established as a result of actual incidents. Until now, that response strategy was limited both by cost considerations and by the capacities of the existing underwater intervention technology. That second limiting factor has now disappeared: the successful recovery of the fuel trapped in the Prestige wreck shows that oil recovery from a wreck has become technically possible at any depth. Consequently, the only remaining limiting factor is cost, raising the crucial question of how to identify the possible standards for weighing intervention costs against potential pollution hazards.

Incidents are described, questions are raised; but no potentially polluting shipwreck records, no overall risk assessment, no specific response standards are proposed here. Potentially polluting shipwreck records are not public. Risk assessments do not exist. Response standards are still a case-by-case matter. However, one principle is emerging from the case studies presented here. Response standards can no longer reflect only the sole views of industry, of governments, and of their technical and legal experts. Rather, they have to account for the opinion and lobbying capacity of those who buy and elect: the consumers and the general public.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2004-09-01

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  • The Marine Technology Society Journal is the flagship publication of the Marine Technology Society. It publishes the highest caliber, peer-reviewed papers on subjects of interest to the society: marine technology, ocean science, marine policy and education. The Journal is dedicated to publishing timely special issues on emerging ocean community concerns while also showcasing general interest and student-authored works.
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