Environmental time bomb off Santorini

In April 2007 the Greek-flagged Sea Diamond cruise ship, owned by Cypriot entrepreneur Kostakis Loizos, hit a clearly marked reef while trying to berth. In 1999 a new deck, 62 extra cabins, a lounge and restaurant had been added to the 21-year-old ship. The collision opened a hole in the side of the ship, flooding the engine room and second deck. The ship started to tilt and panic ensued. The 1,163 passengers and 391-man crew were evacuated except for two French passengers, presumed drowned, whose bodies have never been found. The ship was then towed close to port where it sank to the sea bed. The shipwreck still lies on the sea bed, producing enormous quantities of toxic waste. Corrosion will sooner or later cause leakage and the spillage of toxic substances into the marine ecosystem. Petrol pollution is the lesser evil as it is visible and dissoluble. There are though many other hazardous substances which threaten: toxic chemicals contained in the hydraulic and cooling systems, large quantities of asbestos in the engine room and heating insulation (asbestos fibres can travel for miles in the sea without decaying), hundreds of television and computer screens and other electronic equipment containing a plethora of chemical substances such as arsenic. The ship belongs to the Cypriot Louis Group owned by Kostakis Loizos, who has close ties with prominent politicians and the Church in Greece and Cyprus. Three former Cypriot ministers and the former Cypriot parliament speaker are board members of the parent company Louis Public Company Ltd. The Louis Group has 26 hotel complexes and 13 cruise ships in Greece and Cyprus with 8,500 employees. The Louis Group came into the public eye for the first time in October 2006 when two British children, six-year-old Robert Shepherd and his seven-year-old sister Christine, died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a leak in the air-conditioning system in their room at the Louis Corkyra Beach hotel. The investigation revealed numerous infringements on the part of the company. The hotel was closed but was found to be operating again in the spring of 2007. The Sea Diamond was bought by the Louis Group early in 2006 for $35 million. According to a complaint by the Greek Union of Merchant Navy Engineers, cabins had been built below the water line, which is extremely dangerous. After the vessel hit the reef, passengers could not be evacuated using the ship’s own means and other ships were required, in a procedure taking over two hours instead of the mandatory 30 minutes. In the first crucial moments, the company was unable to provide an accurate list of passengers, while cabins were not searched even after French passenger Anne Allain notified reception that hers had flooded. The company claimed the maps were erroneous in an attempt to place blame on the Greek state but the Marine Map Service regularly updates its charts and announces any changes. Louis Hellenic Cruises has in the meantime received $55 million in insurance. As for the hefty fine of -1,173,880 imposed on the shipping company and -9,000 a day by the Santorini port authority for polluting the sea, not a single euro has yet been paid. (1) This article first appeared in the December 9, 2007, issue of Kathimerini’s