A court on Wednesday convicted Total SA in France's worst oil spill and ordered the petroleum giant and three other defendants to pay $285 million in compensation — the first time a French court has awarded damages for harming the environment.
The ruling found Total guilty of maritime pollution for shipping fuel in a rusty tanker that broke apart in a 1999 storm and stained 250 miles of coast with oil. Compensation was ordered paid to 101 civil parties, mainly associations involved in the clean-up or ecology groups.
The decision, coming after a four-month trial that ended last June, raised hopes among environmentalists that unseaworthy ships will be forced from international waters.
"The message is that a society that sends 'garbage boats' to sea must pay the consequences," said Dominique Voynet, a former environment minister and now a Green Party senator.
Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said the verdict "marks a very important step" by recognizing "the notion of an ecological harm resulting from an attack on the environment."
"The notion of responsibility is at the heart of sustainable development," Borloo said.
Pollution fine much less
Far less punishing for Total was a $555,000 fine, the maximum for maritime pollution.
The court faulted Total for "carelessness" in leasing the 23-year-old Maltese-registered vessel Erika, which had sailed under eight names and numerous owners. Despite the ship's certification, the tanker bore "suspect shadowy zones of substantial corrosion," the court said.
Also convicted were Italian company Registro Italiano Navale, which inspected the vessel; the ship's Italian owner, Giuseppe Savarese; and Antonio Pollara, head of Italian company Panship, which was operating the vessel.
The verdict was less harsh than it might have been. Total was acquitted of complicity in endangering people in the spill of 3 million gallons of oil that soiled miles of Atlantic beaches on the Brittany peninsula.
The fine and a share of the damages amount to small change for Total, which reported $4.64 billion in net profit in the third quarter of 2007. Nevertheless, Total's lawyer, Daniel Soulez-Lariviere, said he would counsel the company to appeal.
Ten defendants were acquitted, including the Indian captain of the Erika, Karun Mathur. The court said it could not determine whether his actions played a role in the sinking.
Up to 75,000 birds killed
The case followed a tortuous path through the courts and growing anger toward Total over a spill that killed up to 75,000 birds. Demonstrators dumped dead, oil-coated birds at the company's Paris headquarters and massed as many as 20,000 people in protests.
"For the first time, ecological damage is recognized," said Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, president of the League of Protection of Birds, one of the groups expecting a handsome damage award.
"We have won 800,000 euros ($1.2 million) in damages and interests, but even if (we) got a single euro I would be happy," he said. "This verdict plants the roots of a recognition of noncommercial entities" like wild birds.
On Dec. 12, 1999, rough seas tore at the tanker, which was carrying fuel oil owned by a unit of Total. The Erika, aging and corroded, split in two and eventually sank about 40 miles off Brittany.
France's Bureau of Inquiries into Sea Accidents blamed lack of maintenance and corrosion aboard the tanker as the main causes of the spill.
A year after the sinking, the European Union agreed on tighter controls on maritime safety, notably the phasing out of single hull tankers like the Erika.