When the oil tanker Prestige broke apart and sank off the coast of Spain in November 2002, it joined an infamous line of environmental catastrophes in maritime history. The way in which the Prestige incident unfolded and, in particular, the denial of a place of refuge for the tanker intensified existing pressures on the IMO to finalize and adopt guidelines intended to assist all concerned parties in dealing with similar circumstances.

At the 23rd Assembly, the IMO answered by adopting two resolutions on the issue. These resolutions offer excellent planning, preparedness, and response guidelines and a framework for effectively dealing with the next Prestige. The IMO guidelines are compatible with the U.S. National Response System and existing laws designed to protect the environment, public health, and welfare. As such, their implementation requires neither regulation nor significant adjustments to U.S. policy. With few exceptions, the National Response System should assimilate the IMO guidelines. Specifically, Area Committees and Harbor Safety Committees should plow the IMO guidelines into current planning, preparedness, and response activities in order to ensure effective response to places of refuge scenarios.

The most critical and urgent issue is to ensure the decisionmaking criteria and process for both allowing and taking a ship in need of assistance to a place of refuge is well developed, agreed upon, and exercised beforehand, so that when the real thing occurs those who need to make the decision know exactly what to do and who to contact.

This paper discusses relevant aspects of the National Response System and authorities as they pertain to the IMO guidelines and the role of the U.S. Coast Guard as the federal agency charged with their implementation.

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Author notes

1 The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security or United States.