The Erika oil tanker disaster had globalisation written all over it. The ship was registered in Malta.
It had been certified as seaworthy by the Italian company RINA. The vessel was owned by an Italian based in London. Its cargo was owned by a Panama branch of the French oil company Total. The single-hulled Erika had been built 24 years earlier, in Japan.
It got into trouble off the coast of Brittany, France but outside French territorial waters, even though the spill fouled 400 kilometres of the mainland. It would be a black Christmas here.
The stricken ship, denied a port of refuge, stayed at sea in heavy weather, long-corroded and now fatally cracked. December 12, 1999 was the ship’s ultimate date of expiration. It would take tens of thousands of birds with it. Cleanup would stretch through all of the year 2000 and cost many millions.
The trial to decide responsibility began in February 2007. The Indian captain, the certification company RINA, the ship’s owners and Total were all in the dock.
Brittany and the French Loire region, towns and cities along the coast and associations were the plaintiffs. They called for both civil and criminal penalties, and notably reparations to redress the ecological damage.
In January 2008, their case was upheld, a legal milestone. This was congratulated by the French Minister for the Environment at the time.
Dominique Voynet said: “It is the first time that damage to the environment is recognised, both for the regions and protective associations. The evaluation not only of the impact on the economy but also the damage done to the birds, sea, coast and to natural beauty is completely exceptional.”
The Erika disaster also moved European regulation in these matters along. Single-hulled oil tankers have been banned from EU ports since 2003.