Why is it in the news ?

The courts are making the Total group compensate victims of the oil slick caused by the sinking of the Erika in 1999.  This acknowledges that Total and the owners of the tanker were responsible for this catastrophe.

What is ‘the Erika’ ?

It’s the name given to a tanker built in Japan in the 1970s.  In 1999, Total (leading French oil group) decided to charter this boat – in other words, it hired it to transport crude oil.  The Erika should have transported more than 30,000 tonnes of crude oil from Dunkirk in France to Livorno in Italy, but it never arrived at its destination.

What happened on 12 December 1999 ?

The tanker left Dunkirk on 8 December 1999.  The weather was very bad: high winds, four metre waves and poor visibility.  Four days after leaving, a stormed raged as the tanker was off the Breton coast.  After changing course, the tanker cracked and was shipwrecked.  The 26 members of crew were all rescued, but the ship split in two and sank in the ocean.

What were the consequences of the sinking ?

More than 20,000 tonnes of fuel covered the ocean.  The huge oil slick came ashore on the French coast between Finisterre and Charente-Maritime, covering around 400km.  In French it’s called a ‘black tide’ because hundreds of kilometres of beaches were soiled and 150,000 birds were covered in oil.  All this cost a lot of time and money to clean up.

Why was there a trial ? 

The enquiry showed that the sinking was not an accident.  Mistakes were made.  The Erika was poorly maintained.  Why did it set off from Dunkirk when the weather conditions were so poor?  The trial had to determine who was responsible for the catastrophe.  Among the accused were the captain, the owner of the Erika and also the directors of Total who hired the tanker.

What was the verdict ? 

This week the courts convicted Total.  This means that the oil group was found guilty of the sinking.  The group’s directors are accused of wanting to save money by hiring a poorly maintained tanker for a low fee.  The tanker’s owners were also found guilty.  Like Total, they have to pay a fine to compensate the towns, regions and French departments affected by the oil slick.
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