Frances Total among 15 in the dock over Erika oil spill

Frances Total among 15 in the dock over Erika oil spill

The first trial in France over a major environmental disaster will open on Monday to decide whether oil giant Total and other parties bear responsibility for the massive oil spill from the Erika shipwreck in 1999.

A 25-year-old rusting tanker, Erika was carrying 30,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil when it sank off France’s Brittany coast on December 12, 1999, polluting vast stretches of the Atlantic coastline and killing thousands of seabirds.

Fifteen parties including Total, the tanker owners, a charter company, a vessel classification firm and maritime authorities are in the dock on various charges of endangering lives, causing pollution or failing to respond to a disaster.

Total executive Bernard Thouillin and two of the company’s affiliates — Total Transport Corporation and Total Petroleum Services — are to answer accusations that they chartered a tanker of dubious seaworthiness in order to meet a tight deadline for delivery of the cargo to Italy.

If convicted of causing maritime pollution, Total could be fined up to one million euros (1.3 million dollars) while a conviction on the charge of complicity to endanger lives carries a maximum one-year prison term and a 15,000-euro fine.

The French state is seeking 153 million euros in damages to cover the cost of the cleanup and recovery of the wreckage while many of the 70 plaintiffs in the case are demanding hefty compensation.

A Total spokesman however voiced confidence that the oil firm would be cleared and emphasized that 11 other parties are to come under scrutiny during the trial.

“We consider the allegations to be groundless,” said Total spokesman Charles Edouard Ansray. “We are awaiting the outcome of the trial that is to assign responsibility.”

The Italian owner of the Erika, Giuseppe Savarese, and his manager Antonio Pollara are to answer charges of negligence and jeopardizing the lives of the 26 Indian crew members of the Erika that broke in two in heavy seas and later sank.

The Indian captain of the vessel, Karun Mathur, has also been charged but it is not certain that he will appear before the Paris criminal court.

The Italian maritime certification company RINA, a member of its board Gianpiero Ponasso, and the co-owners of the Selmont vessel charter company, Mauro Clemente and Alessandro Ducci are also cited.

Finally, four men responsible for maritime safety and rescue — Eric Geay, Michel de Monval, Jean-Loup Velot and Jean-Luc Lejeune — are charged with failing to respond to a disaster.

It has taken seven years for magistrate Dominique de Talance to investigate the Erika disaster in which 20,000 tonnes of fuel leaked into the ocean, dealing a severe blow to local tourist and fishing industries.

The total cost of the damage has been estimated at over one billion euros.

Prosecutors intend to argue that the debt-ridden owners of the Erika ignored security problems of the ageing tanker to continue making money off it.

Total chartered the tanker, the only one available at the port in Dunkirk at that time, in order to meet its contractual obligation to deliver 19,000 tonnes to the Italian company Enel by December 31, according to the prosecutors.

The trial in a Paris criminal court is expected to last four months and rate among the costliest in France, notably due to the hiring of 14 interpreters for the Indian, Italian, Greek and British witnesses.

The Maltese-registered Erika left Dunkirk on December 8, 1999, bound for Leghorn, Italy but ran into bad weather in the Bay of Biscay three days later, hitting waves of up to 14 meters.

As the weather worsened, heavy fuel began to leak from the tanker and the captain sent out a Mayday message the following day, reporting that the ship was sinking.

The ship broke in two parts on December 12 and the crew was airlifted to safety.

Waves of heavy fuel oil began washing ashore on Christmas Eve, triggering a major cleanup operation that would last months.

The disaster prompted the European Union to adopt new maritime shipping regulations including banning older tankers and creating a more stringent inspection regime.

AFP via Yahoo News

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