Totalfina mired in Erika oil spill aftermath

Calls for consumer boycott, financial compensation, after 400km of coastline hit

French oil firm Totalfina is facing political pressure to stump up massive financial compensation following the sinking of the oil tanker Erika off France's Atlantic coast before Christmas. The company apologised on Wednesday for initially underestimating the scale of the accident and promised to make every effort to assist in the clean-up operation. But it continued to reject legal responsibility, which it said lay with the shipping firm from which it chartered the vessel.

The Erika broke up in storms 70km from the French coast on 12 December, releasing 10,000 of the 30,000 tonnes of Totalfina heavy fuel oil it was carrying. This is equal to the total amount of oil spilled worldwide in 1998, though the quantity is far less than previous major oil spills off European coasts, such as the Sea Empress in 1996, the Braer in 1993, according to figures collated by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF).

In France, the Green party and environmentalists have led the charge for Totalfina to assume total responsibility for the oiling of over 400km of coastline since 24 December 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.

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 Erika accident comes as the European Commission is just about to release a white paper on civil liability for environmental damage. The Commission has been closely involved in coordinating emergency response measures to the accident. European oil industry officials expect a broader EU policy reaction will follow.

Follow Up:
Totalfina, tel: +33 1 41 35 40 00; ITOPF, tel: +44 20 76 21 12 55; IOPC, tel: +44 20 75 82 26 06; French environment ministry, tel: +33 1 42 19 20 21. All the web sites listed currently have specific pages on the Erika accident.

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