Paris court clears way for trial on Brittany oil spill

22nd February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 21 (AFP) - A court here opened the way Monday to legal proceedings to establish whether French oil giant Total bore responsibility for a disaster when a tanker broke up in heavy seas, causing major pollution to France's Brittany coast.

PARIS, Feb 21 (AFP) - A court here opened the way Monday to legal proceedings to establish whether French oil giant Total bore responsibility for a disaster when a tanker broke up in heavy seas, causing major pollution to France's Brittany coast.

Total has been under judicial investigation for alleged complicity in endangering lives and maritime pollution.

The oil spill occurred off the Brittany coast in December 1999 when the Maltese-registered tanker Erika broke up in gale force winds and rough seas, and her bow section sank releasing large quantities of oil and causing widespread coastline pollution.

The 37,283-tonne Erika broke apart in storms 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the French coast spilling 10,000 of the 30,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil it was carrying.

The prosecutor's office had sought a new experts' report on the causes of the sinking.

But the Paris appeals court rejected this request Monday, thereby concluding preliminary investigations and hearings and clearing the way for a full trial late this year or early next year to establish responsibility for the disaster.

The ruling was welcomed by lawyers for some 60 civil plaintiffs who had earlier expressed anger on hearing that Total, which had chartered the Erika, had record profits of EUR 9 billion (USD 11.75 billion) last year.

Victims of the oil pollution have so far been paid EUR 97 million for damages assessed at EUR 920 million.

"We are demanding that the state should, via the environment ministry, seize and hold the EUR 9 billion against compensation," said Franck Laval, chairman of a pressure group on oil spillages.

Attorney Corinne Lepage, a former environment minister now representing several affected Brittany communities, said the litigants would now be calling for speedy court proceedings.

"The victims must set up a coordinated strategy to confront oil companies who believe they are above the law," said Jacques Mangold, head of another pressure group in Brittany.

A first expertise concluded that the sinking was caused by cracks in the ship's bridge which would have been detectable during compulsory inspections that the chartering company was obliged to undertake.

But last year Total submitted a separate report by experts ordered by the trade tribunal of the port of Dunkirk from which the ship had sailed.

This expertise cleared Total, saying corrosion in the tanks had caused the damage and that this would not have been detected by inspectors.

Based on this, the Paris prosecutor's office sought a second court expertise which was turned down Monday.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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