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Piling on the pressure

Posted by Richard Sunday, February 05, 2012

The piece on the Costa Concordia two weeks ago obviously touched a nerve in Brussels. Within days, we had a protest from the commissioner himself, a note from the commission's head of media services and a letter from Professor Dracos Vassalos, who was mentioned in the piece.

And not only was The Sunday Telegraph "required" to publish in full a rebuttal from Siim Kallas, this had to be printed in bold to give it the appropriate prominence. For once, however, the ST did not roll over and instead printed a heavily edited and thus somewhat anodyne letter from Vassalos, which was published last week.

This opened the way for Booker, in his column this week to write a rebuttal of the rebuttal, stating what is now very obvious – that the original piece caught the EU commission out in a highly embarrassing system failure,

The commission, of course, is in the propaganda game, indulging in damage limitation, which is why so much pressure was brought to bear. But in this case (as always) we had the evidence (see links on the blog) for the commission's failure, in the form of a series of studies published over the past eight years by Vassalos – arguably Europe’s leading expert on ship safety.

Vassalos, however, is a creature of the EU, having carried out research funded by the commission for 17 years – and he (and his team) has been warning of precisely the disaster which befell the Costa Concordia.

Typical of the way the commission works, though, Vassalos's letter did not mention was the very point highlighted in Booker's article: that a central theme of papers he has published with increasing urgency since 2004 has been the vulnerability of huge modern cruise ships to capsizing if their hulls are breached – the so-called "damage stability".

The problem that he and his colleagues identified was that, although these "mega-ships" are normally stable, they have a crucial design flaw. Even a small amount of water breaking in after a collision may be forced across the ship, rendering it liable to capsize, exactly as happened to the Costa Concordia.

In 2006, when the Commission was preparing a major new directive on ship safety, Vassalos and his team published a paper on the "post-damage stability" problem, entitled “Survival Criteria for Large Passenger Ships”. This was part of an EU project known as Safenvship (the details of which seem to have disappeared from the Commission website). In another paper, in 2007, they warned that “the regulatory system is stretched to breaking point”.

In 2009, however, when the EU issued its new directive – which covered aspects of ship stability - it totally failed to address the problem. This prompted Vassalos and his team to publish yet another paper, entitled "Ringing the Alarm Bells", claiming that the new rules did nothing to remedy what they described as the "serious problem" they had identified.

Crucially, their experimental studies had shown that "of 33 cases considered, 16 were found to lead to the vessel capsizing within two hours, sometimes very rapidly", even despite the designs conforming with then current regulations and passing the raft of prescribed stability tests.

Despite this, in his letter last week, Vassalos praises the commission last week for its "outstanding contribution to ship safety", but as he knows better than anyone, the Concordia disaster was brought about by the very problem he has long been warning about – and so far in vain.

What the commission cannot do though is conceal the evidence. Even though references to the work have disappeared from the commission's own website, the trail of papers can still be found on elsewhere the internet, leaving Vassalos in the awkward position of trying to play down the importance of his own papers.

One is minded of that famous verse from the Rubáiyát Omar Khayyám: The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

Tough old world, innit!

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