Oil companies can be made to pay for spills, EU rules
National courts can force oil companies to pay the costs of cleaning up oil spills if they decide that the company did not pay enough attention to safety, the European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday, reported dpa.
A national court may "consider that the seller of hydrocarbons and charterer of the ship carrying them has 'produced' waste if it finds that the seller-charterer contributed to the risk that the pollution caused by the shipwreck would occur," a court statement said.
Such a "contribution" to the spill could include, in particular, "if he failed to take measures to prevent such an occurrence, such as measures concerning the choice of ship," the statement said.
The ruling comes in a dispute between the municipality of Mesquer, on France's Atlantic coast, and French fuel giant Total, which in 1999 chartered the tanker Erika to carry heavy fuel oil to Italy.
The Erika sank on December 12, 1999, spilling 20,000 tons of oil along the French coastline in the worst environmental disaster in French history. Experts estimated the damage caused by the slick at over 1 billion euros (1.55 billion dollars).
In 2000, the commune of Mesquer, which had been hard hit by the spill, sued Total for 70,000 euros, arguing that it had knowingly chartered an old and unreliable vessel - a claim the company denied.
Mesquer's claim was rejected in the court of first instance, but the commune pursued the case to the appeal court, which asked the ECJ to clarify whether the EU's waste-disposal rules covered the case.
Those laws are based on the principle of "the polluter pays." The ECJ judgement establishes the principle that both the ship-owner and the company which chartered it can be treated as the polluter, but that the charterer can only be liable if a national court decides that it contributed to the risk of pollution.
It also clarifies that spilled oil counts as "waste" in EU terms - meaning that oil slicks are automatically covered by the "polluter pays" principle.