Total’s Guilty Verdict in Massive Oil Pollution Upheld by French Court
Total, the French oil giant, lost an appeal today to overturn a court ruling that found the company guilty of negligence for the sinking of oil tanker Erika, which spilled 20,000-ton oil off the French Atlantic coast in 1999.
Maltese-registered oil tanker Erika, photographed from a French Navy plane, sinks (December 13, 1999). The rusty oil tanker broke in two in violent seas off the Brittany coast, western France, releasing about 22,000 tons of crude oil into the Atlantic. Photo: French Navy. Click image to enlarge.
Appeals court in Paris upheld an earlier conviction and a fine of 375,000 euros against the company.
Erika, a 25-year-old oil tanker, broke in two on December 12, 1999, polluting 400 km of France’s Atlantic coastline. The oil spill which killed or injured about a third of a million birds, took more than three months to clean up.
In 2008, following “a seven-year investigation and complex trial that lifted the lid on the murky world of offshore-registered shipping,” a criminal court in Paris ruled that Total was responsible for sinking of Erika, an aging, rusty oil tanker, and ordered the company to pay several million euros in damages.
“Total, which chartered the rusting tanker that split into two off the Brittany coast, belching out a black toxic wave, was found guilty of negligence and fined €375,000 ($500,000). It was also ordered to pay a share of nearly €200m in damages to civil parties, including the French state. The Italian certification company that declared the vessel seaworthy, and the ship’s owner and manager, were also held responsible.” A report said.
“The courts decision establishes a legal precedent by recognizing that polluters can be held responsible for damage they cause to the environment.” RFI said.
The French Judge Joseph Valantin reportedly said Total had “committed an error of negligence that is linked to the sinking” of the Erika and it was as a “direct consequence of the serious rust corrosion” caused by “insufficient maintenance of the ship.”
Erika slowly sank in the Bay of Biscay about 65 km off the coast of western France , spilling a massive oil slick of 20,000 tons of toxic crude into the Atlantic. About two weeks later, the oil began covering the shore, killing up to 200,000 birds and injuring more than 100,000 others. “Locals described a coating of black goo ‘like thick chewing gum,’ sometimes 30cm (12in) thick on beaches. Seafood was banned, fishing was suspended and volunteers rushed to try to clean the birds that were suffocating in what environmentalists called a ‘black tide.’ Some cleaned beaches were blackened again overnight as fresh oil washed in.” A report said.
“Some 270,000 tonnes of waste, made up of fuel oil, seawater, sand and stones, had to be treated in the Erika cleanup operation. Tens of thousands of sea birds usually wintered on the affected stretch of Atlantic coast and vast damage was caused to shellfish farms and fishing.”
- More images of Erika oil spill disaster
- The polluter pays: 30,000 tonne oil disaster costs French firm €200m
- Total loses Erika oil spill appeal