Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Greens Fight Oil Tanker Menace

Dramatic increase in tankers could lead to repeat of Spain's disastrous oil spillage off the Adriatic coast.
By Goran Vezic

Green activists are up in arms over a major oil deal hatched with Russia, which they say could inflict incalculable harm on the precious natural resources of the Adriatic Sea.


The deal means that from early next year about 15 million tons of oil will start reaching the port of Omisalj on the island of Krk in the northern Adriatic, through a pipeline from Russia.


Environmentalists say the oil, which is then to be shipped along the coast to the Mediterranean, threatens not only the flora and fauna of the Adriatic but also the money-spinning tourist industry, on which hundreds of thousands of jobs depend.


The environmental association, EKO Kvarner, named after the bay surrounding Krk, aims to force the local authorities to call a referendum on the project. From April 12, hundreds of volunteers will begin collecting signatures in support of a poll. If they gather 60,000 names, or 20 per cent of the county electorate, the local government will be obliged to call a vote by the end of May.


Croatia's environment minister, Bozo Kovacevic, said he backed the idea, saying a plebiscite was needed to test the strength of local resistance to the project.


The agreement, worth 80 million US dollars, was negotiated last April in Moscow by three partners - the Croatian firm, Adriatic Oil Pipeline, its Russian counterpart, Druzba Oil Pipeline, and the Hungarian company Adria Oil Pipeline.


Vjeran Pirsic, head of EKO Kvarner, said environmentalists were concerned about a repeat of recent ecological disasters such as the gigantic oil spillage off the coast of Galicia, in north-west Spain. Oil from the spillage covered beaches off Spain for months, ruining fishing and killing huge numbers of birds, fish and crabs.


Pirsic is also worried that water from the ballast tanks of the oil tankers will infect the Adriatic with alien organisms, endangering the local flora and fauna.


Water-ballast tanks are flooded to maintain buoyancy and stability when the oil tankers have no cargo. Before loading up with oil, the vessels release the water from the tanks into the sea.


"If ballast waters destroy our sea, we will have neither tourism nor commercial fishing - only olives, but without people," Pirsic argued, adding that the tropical killer algae known as caulerpa taxipholia had already reached the Adriatic Sea by way of ballast waters.


The Black Sea sets a disturbing precedent for the dangers facing the environmental balance in the Adriatic. Increased oil tanker traffic there over the past 15 years has resulted in the stocks of fish plummeting by as much as 90 per cent.


"About a million tons of ballast waters are being released into the Adriatic Sea already, but the situation is now likely to get worse," Pirsic told IWPR.


He described the petition as a last resort, after the government had failed to respond to activists' requests for a survey of the scheme's potential environmental impact.


Tourist officials share many of the concerns that the environmentalists have raised. Hoteliers and others fear an increase in oil tanker traffic may hit tourist revenues, currently the most profitable branch of the Croatian economy.


The Kvarner bay resorts alone generate about 23 per cent of the country's total tourist revenue, totalling 800 million to a billion dollars, while the maximum oil revenue from the deal would range between 60 and 80 million dollars.


Mario Babic, chief maritime inspector of the marine department, told IWPR that many of the 227 oil tankers that sailed into the Adriatic last year flew under flags of convenience, which were on the black list of the International Maritime Organisation.


Merchant vessels use these flags, from Liberia, Panama, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Bahama Islands and other states, to cut costs, avoid paying taxes in their home countries and introducing pricey safety measures.


Babic said two-thirds of these vessels were more than 15-years-old and most would not even be allowed to dock in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, where oil tankers without double hulls have been banned.


This regulation has been introduced as double hulls significantly contribute to the preservation of the maritime environmental balance in the event of an accident, as the second hull usually remains intact in the event of rupture of the first.


However, only 2,077 oil tankers of 7,300 currently sailing the world have double hulls and are therefore, considered safe. As matters stand, a ban on the docking of oil tankers with single hulls would paralyse their movement.


"We will have to supervise and control the age of ships," said Babic. "Under new maritime legislation (which is under way) the minister of marine affairs will have the power to specify the age limit of tankers entering Croatian ports."


Babic said Croatia needed to purchase better rescue equipment and introduce a regime of guided sailing routes, so that all ships in its waters followed strictly designated paths.


He said Croatia would also have to solve the problem of oil tanker ballast waters in line with the latest international maritime regulations. These regulations, which have yet to come into force, will probably specify that water-ballast tanks must be drained in the open sea, at least 200 nautical miles from the coast.


Another option may be to empty ballast waters on land. This provision is contained in the final version of the convention drafted by the International Maritime Organisation, which is yet to be adopted.


No one expects the referendum on the oil deal to be nationwide, but environmentalists from the bay of Kvarner, centred on the port of Rijeka, insist that the local population at least should vote on the project.


The director of the Adriatic Oil Pipeline, Vesna Trnokop Tanta, has sought to reassure the public over the scheme, "It is important to define and analyse the measures which can be put in place to control the risks. (We) are working on a study of effects of this pipeline on the environvment, and the (government) has ordered 12 measures we have to follow in order to make our work secure."


Notwithstanding these assurances, if the plebiscite takes place, those opposed to the project are likely to make their voices heard. A few days ago, the inhabitants of Komiza, on the island of Vis, most of whom work in commercial fishing, voted by 93 per cent against a proposal to farm tuna fish in their bay. They said commercial fish farms would harm the bay's bottom.


As public awareness of the need to preserve the balance of nature rises, almost every community on the Adriatic coast has set up an environmental organisation fighting pollution.


At the same time, warning voices caution against the community relying too closely on tourism for a livelihood. Speaking last month on the oil project, the prime minister, Ivica Racan, said he still believed it was in Croatia's best interest, though he added that measures to safeguard the Adriatic Sea needed to be stepped up as well.


Goran Vezic is the editor of the Stina news agency.