A court in Paris has opened the way to legal proceedings to establish whether French oil giant Total bore responsibility for a disaster when the Maltese-registered tanker Erika sank off the Brittany coast, spewing thousands of tones of oil and causing widespread pollution.
A Malta Maritime Authority spokesperson yesterday told The Malta Financial and Business Times that while a number of individuals and entities are expected to be called before the French courts, 18 in all, the MMA will not be one of the defendants.
The spokesperson added that the Authority does not expect any further French court proceedings to be brought against it with respect to the Erika oil spillage.
Asked whether the MMA is completely ‘off the hook’, the spokesperson was less assured: “Unfortunately the Malta Maritime Authority is not in a position to comment on possible third parties' action or actions that may be initiated against it in the future, both related to this case and others alike.”
Previous media reports had indicated that the Maltese authorities would not be facing legal prosecution in the case, and reports appearing in the international media yesterday indicated that Total SA “is one of 18 defendants that face allegations of wrongdoing in the case, which could go on trial in 2006 if other legal hurdles are cleared.”
In Paris the prosecutor’s office had sought a new experts’ report on the causes of the sinking but the Paris appeals court rejected the request Monday “thereby concluding preliminary investigations and hearings and clearing the way for a full trial late this year or early next year to establish responsibility for the disaster,” according to AFP.
The move was welcomed by some 60 plaintiffs who were not pleased when Total, the company that had chartered the Erika, had declared a profit of nine billion Euros last year.
An early investigation into the Erica’s sinking had shown that there were cracks in the oil tanker’s deck caused by corrosion and concluded that the ships operators should have realised during safety checks that there could be serious problems.
Last year Total submitted a separate report by experts ordered by the trade tribunal of the port of Dunkirk from which the ship had sailed. These experts cleared Total, saying corrosion in the tanks had caused the damage and this would not have been detected by inspectors.
Victims of the oil pollution have so far been paid 97 million euros for damages assessed at 920 million euros.
"We are demanding that the state should, via the environment ministry, seize and hold the nine billion euros against compensation," said Franck Laval, chairman of a pressure group on oil spillages.
Attorney Corinne Lepage, a former environment minister now representing several affected Brittany communities, said the litigants would now be calling for speedy court proceedings.
"The victims must set up a coordinated strategy to confront oil companies who believe they are above the law," said Jacques Mangold, head of another pressure group in Brittany.
A first expertise concluded that the sinking was caused by cracks in the ship's bridge which would have been detectable during compulsory inspections that the chartering company was obliged to undertake.
But last year Total submitted a separate report by experts ordered by the trade tribunal of the port of Dunkirk from which the ship had sailed.
This expertise cleared Total, saying corrosion in the tanks had caused the damage and that this would not have been detected by inspectors.
Based on this, the Paris prosecutor's office sought a second court expertise which was turned down Monday.