Europe to Tighten Oil Tanker Safety Rules

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 10, 2000 (ENS) - The executive branch of the European Union government is looking at stricter maritime safety rules. The new policy direction was prompted by a large oil spill off France's Brittany coast December 12 when the Maltese registered tanker Erika broke up in gale force winds and rough seas.

The bow section sank within 24 hours. The stern section sank on December 13 while under tow. It is estimated that when the Erika broke up, 10,000 tons of the cargo was in the bow section, 10,000 tons in the stern section, and that 10,000 tons were spilled.

Speaking at a news conference Friday, the European Commission's maritime policy director, Georgette Lalis, said proposals could include tougher scrutiny of the seaworthiness of vessels and larger disaster compensation funds.


Oil washes ashore on the beach in the province of Loire Atlantique. January 3, 2000 (Photo courtesy Centre of Documentation, Research & Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution, France)
Under the 1992 international civil liability convention, the tanker owner rather than Totalfina, is legally responsible for the accident, with a limit to liability of US$11.8m (euros 11.7m). Further compensation of up to US$173m is available from the 1992 international oil pollution compensation funds (IOPC).

The Commission will use the EU membership applications by Malta and Cyprus to ensure the higher standards would extend to those flag-of-convenience countries, she said. The Erika was registered in Malta.

The Erika had passed all the inspections it was put through which were deemed necessary by Totalfina, which chartered the vessel, as well as by the other oil companies and the authorities in charge of maritime security, according to Thierry Desmarest of Totalfina's executive management committee.

Maltese authorities have pledged to introduce European Union legislation in the maritime sector in talks with the European Commission on EU membership, a Maltese official said. "We had a screening last November and gave undertakings, which have satisfied the commission," the official said.

The European Commission will publish by June of this year a report on potential improvements to maritime safety regulations. EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom is preparing a policy paper on extending producer liability for environmental damage, scheduled for publication shortly.


Stern of the Erika after the shipwreck (Photo courtesy French Ministry of Defense)
The Erika broke up in storms 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the French coast spilling 10,000 of the 30,000 tons of Totalfina heavy fuel oil it was carrying. This is equal to the total amount of oil spilled worldwide in 1998.

In France, the Green party and environmentalists have urged Totalfina to assume total responsibility for the oiling of over 400 kilometres (248 miles) of coastline since December 24 and the deaths of thousands of seabirds. Several groups have called for a consumer boycott of the company's products, arguing that only this would force the whole industry to improve its safety record.

After a slow start, the French government too, has begun to take the offensive. On Wednesday, it announced a round table due for next month involving all actors involved in marine safety. France would then seek to take "audacious initiatives" at EU level during its presidency term in the second half of this year, the government said.

The economic consequences of the incident have been felt across the region - a drop in the income from tourism, loss of income from fishing and, a more recent development, a ban on the trade of sea products including oysters and crabs, have added to the discomfort of local populations. Thousands of people have demonstrated in the Islands of Noirmoutier, and Ile d'Yeu over the past few days.

Totalfina has set up emergency funds of 40 million francs for cleanup costs, purchasing of equipment, setting up specialist teams and materials for cleaning up the pollution and the removal of waste.


Sea Shepherd Conservation Society volunteer Tanja Regmann with one of more than 300,000 dead birds (Photo courtesy SSCS)
On December 30, Thierry Desmarest of Totalfina's executive management committee announced that the company had decided to finance the pumping work on the Erika. Desmarest said the decision was taken "so that the compensation budget from the insurers and FIPOL, which amounts to 1.2 billion francs, can be channelled primarily into the compensation paid for economic losses and to pay the costs incurred in combating sea and land pollution."

Totalfina has set up, in conjunction with the local authorities and environment protection agencies, programmes for the restoration of the ecological balance. Desmarest announced the creation of a foundation with a budget of 50 million francs over the next five years.

The funds will be spent on restoration of the sites and countryside. Particular attention will be paid to the islands, as well as to those areas to which access is difficult - the bottoms of bays, estuaries and tidal reservoirs, beaches, tidal areas, underwater plant communities, rocky habitats. Seabirds that have suffered from the oil spill will the subject of follow-up and rehabilitation programmes on a national and international scale, Desmarest said. These actions, which is to be long term, will begin once the operations to clean up the coast have been completed.

Desmarest has written to the presidents of the main oil companies suggesting that they draw up together a list of measures designed to improve maritime security. An urgent meeting was held January 7 as part of the Oil Companies International Marine Forum.