A trial into one of France's worst environmental disasters opens on Monday with oil giant Total facing charges over toxic fuel spills that washed ashore following the sinking of the tanker Erika in 1999.
Total is among 15 organisations and individuals charged over the spill that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 400 km (250 miles) of coastline and caused damage valued at up to 1 billion euros ($1.30 billion).
The Erika, a rusting, Maltese-registered tanker, broke in two and sank in heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay some 70 km off the French coast on Dec. 12 1999.
Its 26 crew members were winched to safety by helicopter and its cargo of fuel started to sweep ashore almost two weeks later, killing between 60,000-300,000 birds -- the most serious impact on sea birds ever recorded due to an oil spill.
With the approach of France's presidential elections in April and May, the case has assumed political overtones amid an increased focus on environmental issues and climate change.
Both the rightist French government and Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, head of the Poitou-Charentes coastal region in western France, are among some 70 plaintiffs including local councils and environmental groups.
The case revealed an opaque world of labyrinthine ship ownership and chartering arrangements that plaintiffs in the case say hindered effective safety regulation.
Total, the world's fourth largest oil group, is accused of marine pollution, deliberately failing to take measures to prevent the pollution and complicity in endangering human lives. The company rejects the accusations.
Total, which spent 200 million euros on the cleanup operation, faces penalties ranging from fines in the tens of thousands of euros to being ordered to pay damages that could run into many millions of euros.
The French government alone is seeking 153 million euros.
The trial itself, the first on such a scale in which a multinational will face charges on maritime pollution in France, is expected to last until June at least.
Besides Total and two of its subsidiaries, the ship's Indian captain, its management company, four French maritime officials and the Italian maritime certification company RINA, which classified the ship as safe, are also on trial.
An army of lawyers, some 69 witnesses and interpreters in Italian, English and Hindi will take part in the proceedings in the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris.
Total said it chartered the 25 year-old Erika in good faith, based on documentation certifying it as seaworthy and only found out that its internal structures were corroded following investigations of the vessel after it sank.
Critics, including the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which is one of the plaintiffs in the trial, say Total took cynical risks with the ship to meet a tight contract deadline.
They say international maritime law still needs to be tightened to minimise risks to the environment.
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