France faces its own 'Exxon Valdez'

Jean-Luc Baholet looks out forlornly over the reedy salt marshes that he and men like him have harvested for more than a thousand years, and sighs heavily.

"It makes me sick," to see the salt pans flooded and out of commission at this time of year, he says. "My internal clock has gone haywire."

The season should be starting about now, and Mr. Baholet should be barefoot in the clay-bottomed pans, raking the world's most prized gourmet salt from the evaporating shallows. But six months after the oil tanker Erika sank 90 miles offshore from Guerande and gushed 19,000 tons of oil residue into the sea, the salt producers here are too unsure of what is in the water to gather any salt this year.

Baholet is just one victim of a catastrophe that many here liken to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, In the wake of French version of the Exxon Valdez oil spill

call to policymakers and citizens' groups who had paid little thought to the costs and causes of such spills.

Giving up a year's salt harvest will cost the Guerande salt producers' cooperative about $8 million in sales. But up and down the 250-mile stretch of Atlantic coast polluted by the Erika, victims of the most extensive oil spill in French history are counting cleanup costs and economic losses that could reach $1 billion, the government estimates.

And European policymakers, shocked by the scale of the damage, have begun to tighten up the rules that govern oil tankers, taking a lead from US moves in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.

On the beaches, six months after the Erika broke up in heavy seas, the cleanup work is still going on, even as the tourist season opens. On a glorious afternoon this week, the sandy beach at Batz-sur-Mer, a popular resort, was closed to the public. On a nearby rocky outcrop, a man hermetically sealed in yellow sou'wester gear, a Darth Vader-style mask over his face, was blasting pressurized hot water in a steaming jet onto the granite, cleaning off black stains. And the breeze off the ocean smelled more of gasoline than of ozone.

Offshore, divers are now preparing to pump out the 12,000 tons of oil thought to remain in the two parts of the Erika's hull, lying in 360 feet of water. Onshore, there are fears that if the unprecedented operation starting at the end of June goes wrong, it will provoke another "black tide," as oil spills are known here.

Feelings are still running high in France against Total, the French oil company that had chartered the Erika.

"It was like a rape," says Jean-Claude Herv, a leading member of a local citizens' protest group that sprung up after the wreck. "And the weakness and inefficiency of European defenses were clear."

Mr. Herv and many people here are looking across the ocean as they cope with the aftereffects of the spill, and drawing on the experience of the Exxon Valdez accident. And they do not find the transatlantic comparisons flattering.

For a start, Total, the world's fourth-largest oil and gas company, is denying all legal responsibility for the spill, and - beyond paying to pump out the oil still aboard the Erika - has set aside only $10 million to pay for cleaning up the coastline.

Exxon, "just threw money at trying to get their mess cleaned up," recalls John Devens, who was mayor of Valdez at the time. "As angry as we were at Exxon, they did spend more than $2 billion trying to fix the problem."

Total argues that by paying into the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, an intergovernmental organization that compensates oil-spill victims, it has fulfilled its legal obligations. The fund has promised $1.1 billion, but this will come nowhere near paying for the cleanup and all the losses that the tourist trade, seafood producers, and others will suffer, officials here say.

Total "has a moral responsibility," argues Christophe Priou, the mayor of Le Croisie, a fishing village near Guerande. He, along with some 30 other mayors, is suing Total for the costs of cleaning up the beaches and rocks on his waterfront, which he estimates at around $1 million.

He is disappointed, however, that the French government itself is not suing Total for the money that the state will be paying out in compensation.

"In America, after Exxon Valdez, there was a political reaction that translated into new law. I don't see that happening here," he says.

One provision of the Oil Pollution Act, which the US Congress passed in 1990, bans all but double-hulled tankers from US waters as of 2008, seven years before they are due to be outlawed from European waters.

That, worries Jean-Paul Declereq, a spokesman for the Greens, an environmental political party, means that after 2008, "all safe, modern ships will ply American waters, and all the worst ones will be coming to European ports."

The Erika disaster has sparked some action, though. In March, the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, proposed draft legislation that would tighten up controls on shipping, regulate the companies that certify vessels as seaworthy, harmonize different countries' inspection regimes, and require all tankers to carry pollution insurance.

"These are steps in the right direction," says Mr. Declereq.

"But the real problem is that as oil companies try to reduce transport costs to the absolute minimum, they cut their costs by using ships flying flags of convenience from countries that do not have sufficiently strict legislation such as Panama, or Malta," whose flag the Erika was flying.

"They use cheap seamen from poor countries, they cut corners on maintenance, and they don't replace ships as soon as they should," argues Declereq.

"And until that stops happening, the danger will be there."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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