French Court May Overturn Ruling on Total Oil Spill image

As a consequence of the devastating 1999 oil spill off the Brittany coast, France’s highest court could annul a verdict against national oil giant Total.

In 1999 Erika, a 24-year-old tanker Total had chartered, broke apart in a storm spilling some 20,000 of crude into the Bay of Biscay. The company was found guilty for damage caused to a vast expanse of coastline and wildlife. Total is currently battling to cut off a gas leak at its North Sea Elgin platform off Scotland.

The only escape for the company could be the fact that Italian-owned tanker was in waters classed as an Exclusive Economic Zone, outside French territory when it sunk, and it was flying a Maltese flag, conditions which limit the applicability of French laws. Total has already paid about 400 million euros as clean-up costs and a 375,000 euro fine.

The public prosecutor will recommend the court on May 24th a definitive annulment on the grounds the tanker did not sink in French waters. Corinne Lepage, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said it would be unjust for Total to be let off the hook for one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

“This would mean no-one would be held responsible when French coasts are soiled,” she said. “It would mean charterers like Total could continue, out of pure greed, to hire completely decrepit ships like the Erika and pollute the coasts with impunity.”