Maximum fines requested in Erika oil-slick trial

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Prosecutors have requested maximum fines for French oil company Total and imprisonment for the manager and the owner of the Erika tanker, for their role in the sinking of the Erika ship, which caused a major oil spill, devastating the French coast in 1999.

After four months of trial, seven of the 15 accused individuals were convicted, on 4 June 2007, for their role in the sinking of the 25-year-old rusting ship, which leaked out more than 20,000 tonnes of oil onto the French coast, destroying the marine environment and killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds. 

The spill caused a major uproar and prompted the European Commission to adopt a series of strict preventive measures, known as the Erika I and II packages. An even tougher third package is currently being examined by the European Parliament and the 27 member states and, on 6 June, the Council is expected to reach a political agreement on parts of this package, relating to the duties of states to ensure ships flying their flag meet international standards, and to third-party compensation in the event of accidents.

In the Erika case, prosecutors have called for Total SA, which had chartered the tanker, to be fined €375,000 for maritime pollution but dropped charges against Bertrand Thouillin, the only individual in Total’s management to be investigated and asked for acquittal on the charge of “complicity in endangering lives”. 

Italian maritime certification company RINA, which issued a navigability certificate to the ship, received similar treatment. 

Total has denied charges of “deliberately failing to take the necessary measures to prevent pollution”, stressing that the vessel was “in apparently good condition” and had passed “no fewer than 11 inspections finding it acceptable” in 1999 alone.

The two prosecutors also called for one year in jail and the maximum €75,000 fine each for tanker owner Giuseppe Savarese and manager Antonio Pollara, accused of causing pollution by “recklessness and negligence” and for “putting other people’s lives in danger”. 

Erika’s Indian captain Karun Mathur faces a €10,000 fine for pollution, because he “noted anomalies” from the start, but charges of endangering people’s lives were dropped, his entire crew having been saved. 

There are now around 110 plaintiffs in the case, seeking some €1 billion in damages, including €153 million for the French state and €150 million for the regions to cover the cost of the cleanup and recovery of the wreckage. 

The tribunal will hear the defendants’ cases, as of 13 June, before making its final judgement at the end of 2007 or beginning of 2008. 

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