The Erika environmental disaster in 1999, when a Maltese-flagged tanker sank off the coast of Brittany, ruining 400 kilometres of pristine beaches, may be about to resurface.
But it may resurface as a legal headache for any future judicial redress should another tanker go down anywhere in the world wrecking local ecosystems.
France’s highest court rules today on whether or not to uphold fines imposed on French oil giant Total, which chartered the Erika’s fateful voyage.
“In concrete terms if the court throws the case out it would be extremely serious because it would signal that in a similar disaster where a sinking took place outside territorial waters but not on the high seas, no-one could possibly be held responsible, no-one including Total,” said a lawyer for the local governments affected, Patrice Spinosi.
While the hundreds of millions of euros Total and the Italian owners have already paid in compensation would not be returned, if the court decides the disaster does not fall within French jurisdiction, a precedent would be set.
Some have already protested that it would mean impunity for polluters, while a lawyer representing local communities in Brittany says it would dump 30 years of environmental protection laws in the bin.
After the disaster the EU tightened laws on maritime transport.