January 2, 2008 / 8:48 PM / 13 years ago

NY judge dismisses Spain's claims over oil spill

By Christine Kearney

NEW YORK, Jan 2 (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday dismissed damage claims filed by Spain against an organization that inspects and certifies ships in connection with one of the world’s largest oil spills in the past decade.

U.S. District Judge Laura Swain ruled Spain must pursue its claims against the American Bureau of Shipping in its own courts.

Spain filed suit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan against the non-profit bureau, which has offices in Houston, after the Bahamas-flagged oil tanker Prestige sank off the northwest coast of Spain in November 2002, spilling most of its load of 77,000 metric tonnes of fuel oil.

It was Spain’s worst environmental disaster, coating much of its rocky northwest coastline with the gooey, foul-smelling byproduct and damaging the fishing and tourism industries.

Spain said the bureau, which determines the structural and mechanical fitness of ships, was negligent in classifying the 26-year-old, single-hulled vessel as fit to carry fuel cargoes six months before the disaster.

The bureau disputed Spain’s allegations, saying the sinking of the ship could have been avoided if Spain had better handled the disaster.

After the Prestige got into trouble, Spain refused to give it port and the leaky vessel was tugged around stormy seas for several days before it split in two and sank.

ABS claimed it was protected from Spain’s pollution damage claims under the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC).

Under the rules of the convention, which both Spain and the Bahamas are a part of, the owner of a vessel that has spilled oil carries liability for pollution damage, and exempts third parties unless they acted recklessly.

"Spain, as a signatory to the CLC, is bound by CLC’s provisions and, therefore, must pursue its claims under that convention in its own courts," the judge ruled.

At the time of the sinking, the ship’s registered owner was Mare Shipping Inc., a Liberian corporation. It was registered in the Bahamas and flew the Bahamian flag.

Following the disaster, the environmental group WWF said the spill could damage fishing, tourism and natural habitats in the region for a decade, at a cost of 5 billion euros.

The European Union also banned Prestige-type singled-hulled tankers from its ports.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman)

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