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European Oil Spill Trial Opens

Rob Turner / Andreas Ziemons (th)February 13, 2007

A French court began hearing a case this week that will assign blame for a disastrous 1999 oil spill that was responsible for up to 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) damage.

Some 20,000 tons of oil had a massive effect on the region's wildlifeImage: AP

Oil giant Total is one of 15 organizations and individuals facing charges of either causing or failing to respond to the toxic fuel spill that ended up being one of France and Europe's worst environmental disasters.

The French court must decide who bears responsibility for the December 1999 sinking of the oil tanker Erika. The boat went down in the Bay of Biscay, pouring some 20,000 tons of oil into the sea. The spill polluted 400 kilometers (249 miles) of French coastline, killing wildlife and crippling the region's tourism and fishing industries.

Assigning blame not easy

Kalenderblatt 19.11.2002 Prestige gesunken
The Prestige oil tanker crashed off the coast of Spain in November 2002Image: AP

The court will have plenty of choices when it comes to placing blame. The Indian captain who struggled to keep the ship under control during the storm, the Italian ship owners who may have neglected its upkeep for years, the French contractor, oil giant Total, which in a rush to keep tight deadlines may have cared little about the state of the vessel will all be put to the test.

For Christof Proiyeau, the mayor of Le Croisi, a costal town on the Bay of Biscay, Total, the world's fourth largest oil group, needs to pick up the tab.

"Even if several parties are responsible for the spill, only one can afford to pay for the cleanup, and that's Total," he said. "They recorded huge profits last year and common sense dictates that the polluter should pay."

Total: No ground for legal action

Some 70 plaintiffs including the French government, local councils and environmental groups. They are seeking compensation for the cost of the cleanup operation and loss of earnings through fishing and tourism. According to maritime law, the contractor, in this case Total, is not responsible for any oil spills. But the Erika trial could change that, according to lawyer Alexandre Ferraut.

"Total is clearly to blame," he said. "Because it wasn't as if they simply sent their cargo off as if it were a parcel in the post. They followed the course of the ship the whole time and they decided to use an older ship instead of a new one."

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 after the ship sank. The company's lawyer, Daniel Soulez-Lariviere said Total is innocent.

"I can understand the uproar, but there is no ground for legal action," he said. "Total has not broken the law and we are all sticking together on that point."

But there could be yet another twist in the tale for the French court to consider. Laboratory tests appear to suggest that the tanker wasn’t just carrying crude oil, as Total claims, but also a poisonous, carcinogenic waste.

Lengthy trial expected

Der Öltanker "Exxon Valdez"
Not all oil tankers are still considered seaworthyImage: picture-alliance / dpa

With some 90 lawyers sifting through tomes of evidence and interpreters translating from Italian, English and Hindi, the Erika trial is expected to last at least until June. Past cases have shown that the threat of fines don't seem to change how oil companies operate.

In 2001, the tanker Jessica crashed into a sandbank near the Galapagos Islands and lost 655,000 liters (173,033 gallons) of oil, polluting scores of beaches and killing massive numbers of sea lions and marine iguanas. The British firm Terranova Ltd. had to pay a $10 million fine to the Galapagos National Park. The captain was sentenced to 90 days in prison and lost his license.

Exxon, the world's largest petroleum concern taking in a net profit of approximately $40 billion, paid $2.5 billion for the cleanup effort after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of the US state of Alaska.

The captain, who fell asleep drunk and left an untrained officer at the steering wheel, received a $5,000 fine. The Exxon Valdez continued operating under other names until 2002. Parts of the Alaska coast remain polluted from the spill and residents continue to wait for compensation.