12 DECEMBER 1999 – TANKER ERIKA BROKE IN TWO IN THE BAY OF BISCAYE
Erika MV was a 37,238 DWT Maltese registered tanker, one of eight sister ships built at Shin Kasado Dockyard in Japan. The tanker was delivered in 1975. Despite having 10% less steel than many other tankers of similar size, Erika became very popular amongst shipping companies because of its relative inexpensiveness.
On 8 December 1999, chartered by the Franco-Belgian oil company TotalFina, the tanker departed the port of Dunkerque in northeastern France bound for the Italian port of Livorno, on the west coast of Tuscany, carrying 31,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
In the early afternoon of the 11th December 1999, Erika went into a storm as she was crossing the Bay of Biscay and quickly experienced a major structural failure. The vessel first began to list heavily and then, after the list was corrected, broke in two on 12 December, some 40 nautical miles south of the Pointe de Penmarch in Brittany. Both sections of the vessel eventually sank in about 120 metres following an unsuccessful attempt to tow the stern section further out to sea. The entire crew was rescued without injury by the French navy. As a result of the sinking a large proportion of the vessel’s cargo and bunkers spilled into the sea.
Response vessels were mobilised immediately, but attempts at skimming ultimately met with little success owing to the poor weather and widespread fragmentation of the slick. In 15 days of operations 1,100 tonnes of oil and water mixture were collected, mainly during a 24-hour period of relatively calm weather and reduced swell. It has been estimated that less than 3% of the total spill volume was collected during the response operations at sea. Owing to the influence of strong winds and currents, shoreline oiling did not occur as quickly as expected or in the locations originally forecast. After first moving south-east from the spill site toward La Rochelle, then turning north, the oil finally began stranding around the mouth of the River Loire on Christmas Day 1999. During the cleanup operation, between 190,000 and 200,000 tonnes of oily waste was collected from shorelines and temporarily stockpiled. Operations to pump out oil remaining in the sunken sections of Erika began once the weather improved in June 2000 and were successfully completed within three months. Some 10,000 tonnes of oil were recovered during the main pumping operations.
According to US Coast Guard records, corrosion problems had been apparent on the Erika since at least 1994 with details readily available to port state control authorities and potential charterers. In an inspection in Portland in July 1994, holes were discovered in the main deck coaming, indicating that signs of corrosion were already in place more than five years ago. There was yet more evidence of corrosion, with the ship’s watertight doors not sealing properly and wasting on the door coamings. Erika switched from Bureau Veritas to Registro Italiano Navale in 1998, which authorized her to continue operations despite the French society’s order for a full inspection.
In January 2008 a French court ruled that the French oil giant Total SA which chartered the rusting oil tanker, was responsible for the 1999 sinking. The company was fined 375,000 euros and told to pay a share of 192 million euros in damages for one of France’s worst environmental disasters.