Greece’s illegal fuel trade out of control

One August night on the outskirts of Elefsina, a young man was working feverishly next to a parked truck. He was diverting fuel from an underground petroleum pipeline – Hellenic Petroleum (ELPE)’s main pipeline linking the Aspropyrgos Refinery with the installations at Elefsina – into the truck with the help of a hose and pressure meter. Suddenly, a team of Western Attica police descended on him. Later, they said that the 32-year-old perpetrator was just one link in a chain of illegal fuel traders that included gasoline station owners, tanker truck owners and perhaps even ELPE staff members. They believe it is certain that the stolen petroleum was destined for one of the secret warehouse-refineries around Aspropyrgos before being released on to the market. Three months later, as the investigation is in full swing, no new evidence has been found, not even the identity of the brains behind the operation. It is not the first time: A number of such cases come to light only to succumb later to the law of silence and the money that oils the cogs in the wheels of one of the country’s most criminal economic activities. A similar case occurred two years ago when a massive explosion at an outdoor parking lot in western Athens led to the discovery of a mobile petroleum-processing unit consisting of two tanker trucks, each of 40 tons capacity. Using filters and solvents, the petroleum was processed and fed from one into the other. The Finance Ministry police entered the fray on the heels of the fire department. The name of the vehicles’ owner was made known, but the case was closed with the arrest of a Pakistani worker. The largest volumes of illegal fuel, distributed on the market as heating fuel or diesel fuel for 0.65 and 0.85 euros per liter, respectively, come from merchant shipping fuel, according to sources who also said that it can be sold for as little as -0.15 per liter. The same conclusion was reached by a panel of experts set up in 2006, who found that the ships in question were not being supplied with the supposed amount of fuel and that suppliers were selling cheap shipping fuel as heating fuel on the domestic market. Informed sources say that smugglers have filled illegal tanks ahead of the winter months and are preparing to release shipping fuel on to the market in the place of heating oil after changing its color and removing the tracer substance. A former senior inspector said that oceangoing vessels are allowed to buy an unlimited amount of duty-free fuel. Bunkers, that is those responsible for the fuel supplies, present bogus documents of sale which they submit to customs officials, often without the knowledge of the ship’s master or engineer. They obtain the specified amount of fuel from the refinery, but instead of delivering the tens of thousands of liters to the ship’s fuel tanks, they channel them into tanker trucks and on to illegal reservoirs in Aspropyrgos and Elefsina. They submit a document to customs stating that the said amount was delivered to the customer, but it is impossible for the authorities to check whether that actually happened. A former senior customs official admitted that the supply of fuel to ships, carried out by 50 tanker vessels, is impossible to monitor because the customs service does not possess power boats. «These supply ships come and go as they please between Lavrion and Elefsina. If customs officers want to inspect them, they have to first apply to the Port Authority. Whenever that has been done, somehow it leaked out and we lost the advantage of surprise,» he said. The owner of a coastal shipping company told Kathimerini: «For a long period of time, we would be given 1,000 liters less than the 50,000 liters a day that we paid for. We were told nothing could be done to check the amount and were told to weigh the tanks before and after fueling. «Since then, as we have used a weighing platform for the trucks, we have not had a problem. Nor have we seen the same drivers that used to supply us.»