Much like the repercussions from the Exxon Valdez disaster in the US, the loss of a tanker off France is prompting Europe to reexamine its maritime safety regulations.
The 24-year-old tanker Erika broke in half during a storm off Brittany Dec. 12. The French Environment Ministry said the ship spilled about half of its 25,000-tonne cargo of fuel oil, polluting 250 miles of coastline and killing more than 60,000 marine birds.
The Erika reflected the polyglot nature of the tanker industry: The shipper was French, the owner Italian, the crew Indian, and the flag Maltese.
The French Bureau of Inquiries of Sea Accidents' preliminary report said corrosion probably caused a filled tank to rupture and the ship to founder. A full report is due sometime this summer.
The recovery of the remaining oil is of greater concern. It is slowly leaking from the ship, which lies in 400 ft of water about 45 miles offshore.
Totalfina Elf, which had chartered the ship, is working with the government on a recovery plan. Totalfina Elf has pledged $62 million for the effort.
The French government, which already has spent 4 billion francs for beach cleanups, recently pledged 1 billion more, including 350 million francs to promote tourism for western France beaches next summer.
The government also has demanded that the European Union crack down on older, single-hulled tankers.
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin sent the EU proposals for tougher safety inspections and regulations that make tanker owners more responsible for the costs and consequences of accidents.
An EU agency subsequently proposed retiring pre-1982 tankers at 23 years, rather than 25-30 years. Single-hulled vessels built during 1982-96 under tougher International Maritime Organization rules would be banned from Europe after 28 years, vs. the current 30.
Whether EU will do anything is debatable. Greece, the home of many independent tanker owners, was expected to mount an all-out battle against the rules.
Tanker owners said the EU proposals failed to strike at the root of the problem.
The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko) said the EU's plan to ban single-hulled tankers by 2015 could require some ships to be scrapped as early as 17 years after construction.
Intertanko said the Erika accident has pressured politicians to propose "immediate and effective measures to rid the oceans of substandard ships, while old ships are, ipso facto, being equated with bad ships.
"There were definitely substandard practices associated with the Erika, and her sinking provides a number of very valuable lessons, which it behooves the entire industry to learn from in order to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. However, it is also important that governments and industry do not overreact and promulgate punitive measures before the full facts of the incident are known, published, and widely disseminated.
"The full facts will reveal that, basically, there is nothing wrong with the current tanker safety regime other than it is not being properly enforced."