Sullying the seas

An oil spill pollutes 500 km of the French coast. It takes three weeks and public pressure for the guilty company to accept responsibility

Published: Monday 31 January 2000

 Oily mess: volunteers take th on december 13, Erika, a 25-year-old tanker carrying over 30,000 tonnes of TotalFina crude broke into two and sank just south of the English Channel. The massive oil slick spread along 500 km of the French coast. For over three weeks after the incident, the company, French oil giant TotalFina, refused to own responsibility and take any action to protect the coast.

Even as thousands of volunteers on the French northwestern coast were trying to clean the seas, the company failed to take action to pump the 20,000 tonnes of oil that is still trapped within the ship, increasing the fear that it would leak and pollute the sea further.

It was only on December 31 that the company announced a us $6.13 million emergency fund to clean up the spill. According to a report in Reuters, TotalFina said it was also prepared to pay around ten times as much to empty the remaining cargo of the oil."TotalFina will directly finance the pumping of fuel from the wreck of the Erika. (We) will support the work to ensure that it is done under the best technical conditions and with the shortest possible delay," said a company spokesperson.

"The ship owners are a Maltese company based in Italy, owned by a Greek, whose reputation in the shipping business borders on notoriety. So TotalFina knew exactly what it was doing when it chartered Erika and now it is trying to escape the responsibility by pointing fingers at others," says Bruno Rebelle, executive director of Greenpeace France. Rebelle says the French government and the company began a cover up operation from the moment of the accident.

"Their first reaction was that everything was under control and that they would ensure that the oil slick does not hit the coast at all. But eventually, it became apparent that they had been purposely misleading the people all along," Rebelle says. He says that the French government wanted to protect TotalFina, which, after the proposed merger with Elf, will become the world's fourth largest oil company. "The French government was keen to protect the company, which they flaunt as a French success story and did not want this to be tarred by the spill," says Rebelle.

It was eventually left to the European Commission ( ec) and the stock markets to make TotalFina toe the line. The ec sharply rapped the oil giant and forced it to own up responsibility for the disaster. And finally, even the French government, worried about the electoral impact, made a move. It pressed almost 10,000 policemen and soldiers into the battle against the spill.

The environmental cost of the spill is already beginning to surface. The environment ministry has said that some 17,150 sea birds had been picked up to date, covered in oil, of which 5,240 were already dead. Though prime minister Lionel Jospin also flew down to the site and promised all help to preserve the marine environment, the public's response was quick and brutal. "Too little and too late," is how Greenpeace reacted to the government's moves.

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