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FRANCE: Oil giant 'knew tanker was a risk before disaster'

by John LichfieldThe Independent
February 13th, 2007

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 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.

However, the report on the eight-year judicial investigation presented to the court yesterday said that the Erika should never have left port under the rules which applied in 1999.

Those on trial include Total and two of its subsidiaries; an Italian shipping inspection company, Rina; the owner of the ship, Giuseppe Savarese; an official of an Italian management company, Antonio Pollara and the Indian captain of the Erika, Karun Mathur. They are charged with causing pollution and placing lives in danger. Four French officials responsible for maritime safety are accused of responding slowly or inadequately to the disaster.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The French state, local authorities along the French Atlantic coast and more than 50 private plaintiffs are seeking up to €1m (£665,000) in damages for the economic effects on tourism, fishing and the cost of the clean-up.

Under maritime law, the responsibility of the ship's owners and the oil company is limited. The French state and lawyers for private parties will argue that this ceiling should be lifted because the companies ignored safety regulations and - in the case of Total - ignored its own internal rules.

The judicial investigation, presented to the court, said that the 25 year-old ship had to be used intensively to pay off the loan with which it was purchased. Several warnings had been given in the previous two years about the Erika's severely corroded hull. Only limited repairs were made, with steel sheets that were too thin, the report by an investigating magistrate said.

Total is accused of agreeing to use the ship - the only vessel available in Dunkirk - even though it failed to satisfy its own safety rules.




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