The Erika tanker chartered by Total run aground off the north-west coast of France on 12 December 1999 and spilled more than 10 million liters of oil into the sea. Erika sailed out of Dunkerque (France) bound for Livorno (Italy) with 20,000 tons of fuel oil. Officially, Erika was carrying heavy fuel oil n°2, containing carcinogenic products.Facing a heavy storm in the Bay of Biscay, Erika broke in two and sank, releasing thousands of tons of oil into the sea.
The oil spill affected a 400-kilometre stretch of the French Atlantic coast between the Finistère and Charente-Maritime regions. Erika’s shipwreck is considered as one of the biggest oil tanker disasters in the world, killing marine environment and polluting shores: about250,000 tons of wastes were thrown into the sea and between 150,000 and 300,000 birds died (source: Greenpeace).
The first rapport on Erika’s shipwreck, Touret and Guibert’s one, was delivered on January 2000:
- The skipper was highly experienced and the Erika’s crew did not make mistakes.
- The sea conditions did not constitute a real danger for such a big tanker. Erika shouldhave been able to resist the storm.
- The tanker sank because of a rusty tank breaking inside the boat.
- RINA, the Classification Society, had ordered some renovations in November 1999, but they had never been made.
- Since 1996, Erika has been controlled 7 times but without structure controls. However, Mackenzie institute ranked Erika 1 out of 5 in 1999, which means that the companyconsidered that the boat was in a pitiful condition.
After the Erika’s shipwreck, Total’s corporate image suffered as a result of inadequate crisis management. First, the company kept silent, and then decided to communicate. Total’s leaders used very technical words to explain the disaster, refused to take any responsibility for Erika’s shipwreck and did not sympathize with victims.
Inthe public opinion, Total is blamed for having rent an unseaworthy ship to save money and for having chartered Erika despite the fact that its own vetting system's approval of the vessel had expired. The company refused to pay for the damages, even though they ranked in record profits. They argued that they are legally not responsible for this accident and put the blame on the company carrier andon the classification company: Erika was considered seaworthy by RINA but the vetting system is not supposed to replace certification given by the classification company.
At that time, the CEO Thierry Desmarest waited two weeks before going to Erika’s shipwreck to inspect the damages. Then, he offered one day’s salary to an environmental organization, a ridiculously low amount compared tothe damages caused.
In 2000, Total decided to create the “Mission Littoral Atlantique” (Atlantic Coast Task Force), to address the oil spill that started moving toward the French Atlantic coast. The company pumped out the oil remaining in Erika tank, helped environmental organizations and voluntary workers to clean and restore the coastline, and treated the waste in a refinery. The“Mission Littoral Atlantique” involved 800 people with a budget of 200 million €. However, these actions were not enough to restore Total’s image in the public opinion.
After Erika’s shipwreck, a large campaign against Total was launched on Internet by environmental organizations and environmentally-friendly people. A lot of websites conveyed this boycott campaign deeply harming Total’s brandimage.
Seven years after the event, Erika trial began on the Monday 12th February 2007. Total was accused of chartering Erika despite the fact that its own vetting system's approval of the vessel had expired. They were also blamed for having concealed vessel's previous difficulties from the French authorities. Total argued that Erika seemed to be in good condition, and corrosion was...