STRASBOURG (Reuters) – EU lawmakers backed a tough bill against ships illegally dumping toxic cargo in European waters yesterday to try to avoid any repetition of a 2002 disaster that caused one of Europe’s worst oil slicks. The EU has been pushing for tougher rules to prevent similar accidents, nursing bad memories of when the Prestige oil tanker broke up in rough seas off northwestern Spain and oozed thousands of tons of fuel onto pristine beaches and coves. The bill has bounced between the EU’s various institutions for nearly two years. It will now return to EU transport ministers, who will consider the latest raft of changes made by the European Parliament before it can become law. The main sticking point has been whether the law should provide for criminal sanctions, in the form of jail terms, if deliberate pollution can be proved. These would be optional, not mandatory, for EU countries under an accompanying «framework decision.» The MEPs agreed that ship-source discharges of polluting substances would be regarded as criminal offenses if committed with intent, recklessly or by gross negligence. «We welcome that, in combination with the framework decision, it will now be possible to use appropriate sanctions – including criminal sanctions – across the whole European community when illegal discharges are made at sea,» a UK spokeswoman said. According to the latest draft of the bill, minimum amounts will be set for fines that each country may levy for marine pollution. The bill has annoyed seafaring nations Greece, Malta and Cyprus, which want to protect their substantial shipping industries. In less serious cases, the minimum is fixed at between 150,000 and 300,000 euros. For worse transgressions, the minimum will vary between 750,000 and 1.5 million euros, although member states may set higher fines if they want. The European Commission had wanted EU states to treat ships from other EU countries as «national vessels,» meaning harsher penalties if they were found guilty of polluting. Now, such ships will be bound by a UN convention, which is not as stringent.