Total found guilty in 1999 French oil-spill case

A court ruled on Wednesday that French oil giant Total was responsible for the 1999 sinking of the oil tanker Erika, and ordered it to pay damages for one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

Total, the world’s fourth largest oil group, which chartered the Erika, was fined€375 000 and told to pay a share of nearly €200-millions in damages awarded to civil parties, including the French state.

Rina, the Italian maritime certification company that declared the Maltese-registered vessel seaworthy, and the ship’s owner and manager were also found guilty.

The ruling also opened the way for Total to be sued by local bodies, including regional authorities, and ecological organisations for the environmental impact of the spill.

The Erika, a rusting tanker chartered by Total, broke in two and sank in heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay about 70km off the French coast on December 12 1999, pouring about 20 000 tonnes of toxic fuel oil into the sea.

The accident fouled 400km of beaches and shoreline, crippled local industries including fishing, tourism and salt production and killed tens of thousands of seabirds.

Total and 14 other parties went on trial in February for their alleged role in the disaster and the judge read out the lengthy ruling to the court on Wednesday.

All the defendants denied any wrongdoing.

Total was accused of marine pollution, deliberately failing to take measures to prevent the pollution and complicity in endangering human lives.

Plaintiffs accused Total of negligence in investigating the condition of the ship and of not acting quickly enough when the accident happened.

Total said it had chartered the ship in good faith, relying on official documentation that certified it as seaworthy.

It said it learned that the ship’s internal structures were corroded only as a result of an examination after the accident. It also said it paid millions of euros to help with the clean-up operation. — Reuters

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