By the OGJ Online Staff
HOUSTON, Oct. 17 -- TotalFinaElf SA said Tuesday a French magistrate is considering citing it for the loss of the oil tanker Erika off Brittany in December 1999.
The company said Dominique de Talancé, senior examining magistrate of the Paris District Court (Tribunal de Grand Instance), informed TotalFinaElf that she is considering bringing formal charges.
The company could be charged as an accomplice in the violation of safety rules and with failing to act to prevent the sinking after a distress call was sent.
Ms. de Talancé has been investigating the Erika disaster since January 2000 and recently received a report claiming "major irregularities" around the sinking (OGJ Online, Oct. 5, 2001). TotalFinaElf had chartered the ship.
Five company officials are to appear before the magistrate at a Nov. 7 hearing.
TotalFinaElf responded that primary responsibility for the ship rested in its owners and operators.
It said, "A ship in distress first contacts maritime authorities and then the closest ships in the vicinity and its owner. It never asks for direct assistance from the charterer, who has simply leased the vessel and has no authority to interfere in the management and safety of the ship and its crew. Proof of this lies in the fact that TotalFinaElf was informed of the accident some time after it occurred, and well after the other concerned parties.
"TotalFinaElf intends to show that the company and its employees in no way contributed to the charges made against them. TotalFinaElf believes that it fully respected maritime law concerning the ship's management, supervision and operation, and that, therefore, the charges of complicity in endangering others and pollution are not applicable."
With the exception of TotalFinaElf, all the companies involved in the sinking have been indicted, from the ship's captain to the certification company through the shipowner and France's maritime administration.
Meanwhile, 120 representatives of the 90-nation Oil Pollution Compensation Fund are meeting in London this week to reconsider the indemnity fund for tankers.
The European Union favors a 1 billion franc/accident quota, up from the current maximum of 182.9 million. In the Erika case, so far only 37 million euros in claims have been accepted by the OPCF and 23.9 million paid, although 3,637 entities have sought 131.5 million euros.