LUXEMBOURG (CN) – Europe’s highest court ruled that a French court must ultimately decide who will pay for cleaning up a massive 1999 oil spill that mucked up the French beaches along the Atlantic coast of Brittany.
The European Court of First Justice ruled that the Maltese ship owner is primarily responsible for paying the clean-up costs incurred by Mesquer, a French coastal town, because it produced the waste under the “polluter pays” principle of the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive.
However, Total France SA, the multinational energy company that chartered the Ericka, could be held liable for clean-up costs if the French court finds that Total increased the risk of pollution by failing to take preventive measures, such as selecting a sturdy vessel.
If the ship owner and Total cannot cover the clean-up costs, the court said France would have to pass a national law pinning additional liability on the “producer of the product from which the waste came,” so long as French towns could prove that the producer’s conduct had increased the risk of pollution.
The Ericka split in two and sank during a storm in the Bay of Biscay on Dec. 12, 1999, dumping about 20,000 tons of fuel oil into the ocean. The spill fouled up nearly 250 miles of shoreline, crippled local industries and killed tens of thousands of seabirds.