Oil Giant 'Knew Tanker Was a Risk before Disaster' ; EUROPE

By Lichfield, John | The Independent (London, England), February 13, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Oil Giant 'Knew Tanker Was a Risk before Disaster' ; EUROPE


Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)


The French oil company Total and 14 other defendants were accused yesterday of criminal responsibility for one of Europe's most calamitous oil spills, the wreck of the Erika.

The four-month trial - the most complex of its kind in French history - may also turn into a trial of the "globalised" international shipping system.

The ageing and rusting ship, which split in two off Britanny, on 12 December 1999, was Japanese-built, Italian-owned and controlled by two Liberian companies. The Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.

The tribunal in Paris was told that the ship had already been identified as a potential risk. It was nonetheless allowed to leave Dunkirk in high seas, carrying a cargo of 20,000 tonnes of toxic heavy fuel oil. The ship foundered three days later.

A series of hurricane-force gales struck the Atlantic seaboard two weeks after the disaster, scattering solid blankets of oil up to a metre deep for 240 miles along the French coast from La Rochelle to the western tip of Brittany.

At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast. Up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Eight years on, after a huge effort, France's beaches have been cleaned. But the bird and marine life of the Bay of Biscay and Breton coasts may never fully recover.

The first day's hearing began yesterday with legal arguments over France's right to try the case. Several of the defendants argued that a French court has no jurisdiction because the Erika sank outside French territorial waters. The Erika disaster led EU governments to pass two sets of European laws, tightening maritime safety. In theory, such a disaster could not happen again.

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