On 11 December 1999, the Maltese tanker, Erika, laden with 31,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (n°6), en route from Dunkirk (France) to Livorno (Italy) in very rough sea conditions (westerly wind, force 8 to 9, with 6 m swell), was faced with structural problems off the Bay of Biscay. After sending an alert message, then proceeding to transfer cargo from tank to tank, the captain informed the French authorities that the situation was under control and that he was heading to the port of Donges, at reduced speed.
On the 12, at 6:05 am he sent a Mayday: the ship was breaking in two. A rescue operation was immediately launched and the crew was winched to safety by French Navy helicopters, backed up by Royal Navy reinforcements, in extremely difficult conditions. The Erika split in two at 8:15 am (local time) in international waters, about thirty miles south of Penmarc'h (Southern Brittany). The quantity of oil spilt at that time was estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes.
The bow sank the following night, a small distance away from the place where the ship had broken up. The stern was taken in tow by the salvage tug Abeille Flandre on 12 December, at 2:15 pm, to avoid it drifting towards the French island of Belle-Ile, and it sank the following day at 2:50 pm. The two parts of the wreck ended up 10 km apart from each other, 120 m deep.
Initial aerial survey missions carried out by the French Customs and Navy planes reported slicks drifting at sea, one of which was 15 km long and estimated at 3,000 tonnes. The slicks were moving eastwards at a speed of about 1.2 knots.
On the following days, the aerial observations highlighted a series of slicks made up of thick patches (5 to 8 cm) which tended to split up while continuing to drift parallel to the coast. On 16 December, small slicks of approximately 100 m in diameter gathered in a 25 km long and 5 km wide zone. As of 17 December, they showed a tendency to sink a few centimetres underneath the sea surface.
The first incidences of the oil on the coast were noticed in Southern Finistère 11 days after the accident, on 23 December. Scattered landings continued the following days, hitting the islands of Groix and Belle-Ile on 25 December, and the Vendée region, north of the island of Noirmoutier, on 27 December. Owing to rough weather conditions (wind over 100 km/h, blowing perpendicular to the coast) and very high tide coefficients, the pollution was thrown up very high on the foreshore, reaching the top of cliffs exceeding 10 metres.
On 26 December, 14 days after the sinking, the island of Groix, opposite Lorient, was severely affected and the bulk of the pollution reached the north and south banks of the Loire River. A viscous oil layer, 5 to 30 cm thick and several metres wide, covered parts of the shoreline.
|Shipbuilding||Kasado Dock Co Ltd Japan, 1975|
|Type||Single-hulled oil tanker with separate ballasts|
|Engine||Sulze - 13,200 horsepower|
|Cargo||31,000 tonnes of fuel n°6|
|Marine diesel||132 tonnes|
|Tanks||9 cargo tanks, 4 ballasts|
|Owner||Tevere Shipping (Malta)|
|P&I Club||Steamship Mutual Underwriting Association|
|Trip charter||Total Fina|
Date: 12 December 1999
Accident area: Bay of Biscay
Cause of spill: damage to ship
Quantity transported: 31,000 tonnes
Type of pollutant: heavy fuel oil (n°6)
Quantity spilled: between 19,000 and 20,000 tonnes
Ship type: oil tanker
Date built: 1975
Length: 184 m
The Polmar Sea Plan was implemented on December 12 at 6 pm by the Atlantic maritime Prefect. The following day, the French Navy placed two deep sea support vessels equipped for pollution response on stand-by, to intervene as soon as the weather conditions would allow. They also opened discussions about funding from the Bonn Agreement Member States, a mutual assistance agreement between North Sea countries.
The Biscay Plan, a bi-lateral agreement for mutual assistance between France and Spain (signed on the 7th of December 1999), was activated on 19 December at 4 pm.
The Polmar Land Plans for the Vendée and Charente-Maritime regions were implemented on 22 December. These regions were not hit by the pollution until 27 and 31 December respectively. The Polmar Land Plan for the Loire-Atlantique region was implemented on 23 December, 3 days before the oil slicks reach the shore. The Polmar Land Plans for Finistère (hit on 23 December) and Morbihan (hit on 24 December) were implemented on 24 December. In total, five departments implemented their Polmar Land Plan.
A Claims Office was opened jointly by the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund 92 (IOPC Fund) and the Ship Protection and Indemnity (P&I) Club in the City of Lorient soon after the oil began to hit the coast. A total of 76 million FF (11.4 million euros) was allocated to compensating potential victims, through the ship owner's insurance. Additional compensation was made available through IOPC funds, reaching up to 1.119 billion FF (168 million euros), making a total of 1.195 billion FF (179 million euros).
Last update: 11/12/09