Processing Magazine

Total Appeals Verdict in Oil Spill Trial

January 28, 2008
The Associated Press reported recently that Total SA said it will appeal the guilty verdict against it in the 1999 sinking of the oil tanker Erika, which caused France''s worst-ever oil spill.

But the French petroleum giant also said that whatever the outcome of the appeal, it would also pay court-ordered compensation for the spill. It said the payments would be immediate, "full and final."

The court ordered Total and three other defendants to pay 192 million euros ($285 million) in compensation to 101 civil parties, including the state, associations involved in the cleanup and ecology groups.

But Total said Friday that it would pick up the entire payment.

In its Jan. 16 verdict, the Paris court convicted Total of maritime pollution for hauling fuel in the rusty tanker which split in two in a storm. The ruling marked the first time a French court awarded damages for harm to the ecology, and capped a four-month trial. The court faulted the company for "carelessness" in leasing the 23-year-old Maltese-registered vessel which had had eight names and numerous owners.

Total, in a statement Friday announcing its decision to appeal, said the verdict "is unfair because Total is being blamed for causing the sinking through lack of care during the tanker selection process. But the company was misled by certificates that masked the fact that the ship''s structure was seriously deteriorated."

The verdict was less harsh than it might have been. Total was acquitted of complicity in endangering people in the spill that soiled some 400 kilometers (250 miles) of Atlantic coastal beaches in the region known as Brittany. The oil killed up to 75,000 birds. About 20,000 metric tons (22,000 U.S. tons) of oil leaked into the Atlantic Ocean.

France''s Bureau of Inquiries into Sea Accidents blamed lack of maintenance and corrosion aboard the tanker as the main causes of the spill. It had an impact across Europe: a year after the sinking, the European Union agreed on tighter controls on maritime safety, notably the phasing out of single hull tankers like Erika.

Total, in its statement, said it is "merely a user of ships," with 150 tankers carrying its cargoes every day.

"It is not its role or its business to act as a substitute for inspection companies and classification societies, the ship owner or the flag state," the company said.

"The verdict runs counter to the intended aim of enhancing maritime transportation safety because it forces users to become inspectors, potentially weakening the responsibility of those who have the expertise, duty and actual power to inspect tankers, especially their structures. Contrary to what the court is aiming to achieve, this confusion of responsibilities could eventually make shipping less safe."