Five men face trial in Greece this year accused of involvement in the deliberate spill of 3,800 barrels of oil from a 45-year-old tanker to reap the financial rewards from the multimillion-dollar clean-up operation, according to senior anti-pollution officials.

Greek prosecutors believe the 3,200-dwt Agia Zoni II (built 1972) was sunk on purpose in 35 metres of water near Salamis Island, Greece, in September 2017, to cause pollution.

The alleged plotters followed up with a deliberately botched initial response to worsen the impact of the damage to coastlines, according to a report by the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds, which pays compensation for major maritime oil spills.

A stretch of 3 km to 4 km on the island was affected along with 20 km to 25 km of coastline south of Piraeus port and Athens, it said.

A series of Greek investigations concluded that the sinking was caused either by an explosion or by two crew members deliberately opening seawater ballast valves.

The crew members are also accused of opening cargo tank covers to ensure that oil spilled into the sea.

Nine people were investigated, and the five due to stand trial include the master of the Agia Zoni II, representatives of the shipowner, a key clean-up operator and the two crew members, according to a report compiled by the IOPC Funds for its members based on a criminal file supplied by the Greek authorities.

The five were not named in the document.

The first three have been accused of a plot to cause “extensive maritime pollution in order to benefit from the remuneration for anti-pollution works”, according to the report.

Clean-up contractors made 34 claims, amounting to €83.5m ($89.5m), for their work in the aftermath of the spill from the IOPC Funds.

Oil from the 3,200-dwt Agia Zoni II (built 1972) on a Glyfada beach. Photo: Supplied to TradeWinds

IOPC Funds has approved and paid €16m ($17.1m) so far, with clean-up claims amounting to 95% of those paid out by the beginning of April 2024.

The shipowner and its insurer were responsible for the first $5.95m of liabilities.

“The director reported that the decision of the criminal judges … had revealed that the ship had been sunk intentionally and that there were strong indications that five out of the nine parties who had been examined were criminally liable,” the report said.

A trial lasting four to six days for the five has been scheduled from 24 October, it said.

IOPC Funds director Gaute Sivertsen told TradeWinds that the organisation would seek to claw back any money from individuals or groups found to be responsible for the initial spill.

“Whether we go after the shipowner and the clean-up operator, we will have to see,” he told TradeWinds. “First, we need this to go through the legal proceedings in Greece. It’s been a long time coming.

“We always try to recover our costs if possible,” Sivertsen said, citing the case of South Korea’s largest oil spill in 2007 when the 270,000-dwt tanker Hebei Spirit (built 1993) spilt 11,000 tonnes of ­cargo while at anchor off the north-­western port of Daesan ­after it was hit by a local barge crane.

“We took recourse action together with [protection and indemnity club] Skuld against Samsung Heavy Industries and recovered an amount that was then redistributed to our contributors,” he said.

Suspicions were raised that the spill from the Agia Zoni II was deliberate after the two crew members on the ship failed to raise the alarm when oil started to leak into the sea.

The owners of the Agia Zoni II awarded the anti-pollution and salvage contract to a company with no experience in the field, even though the company was already on site and had started working, according to a report from the IOPC Funds.

“The closing and sealing of the 11 cargo tank covers was achieved by that company 53 hours after the ship sank, which was considered a very long time frame,” it said.

The Greek authorities and the P&I insurer, Lodestar Marine, were criticised in the immediate aftermath of the spill for their response.

Undisturbed and helpless

Eight days after the spill, one marine insurer told TradeWinds: “I came out of an office and I could smell the oil. It’s disgraceful and shocking. I was at one beach on Glyfada with oil coming ashore in waves and there was no one there.”

A report concluded in 2019 by Greece’s third Marine Accident Investigation Council for the public prosecutor concluded that the “objective was to allow the ship to sink undisturbed and helpless”.

It said that the “interests served in this case are clearly evident from the economic benefit obtained by companies assigned by the shipowner to manage the anti-pollution and de-pollution operations”.

The ship, written off as a total loss, was operated by Agia Zoni Shipping based in Piraeus. The salvage of the tanker was completed after a five-day operation using a floating crane, tugs, anti-pollution vessels and a specialised diving crew.

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