1 caught red-handed, 6 trials and 9 years after : a victory against maritime pollution in the Mediteranean

05/02/20

The trial of SDS Rain was the  longest lawsuit in Surfrider Europe's history. In 2010, the Italian ship, SDS RAIN, had been caught red-handed for illegal discharge of hydrocarbons close to Marseille. After more than eight years of trial, the captain and the shipowner were finally sentenced in 2019 by the Court of Appeal of Aix en Provence following a decision of the Court of Cassation. One more victory in our fight against impunity for sea polluters. 

2010 : A marine oil pollution close to Marseille coasts

The case started on April 22th 2010. A French customs surveillance aircraft detects marine oil pollution in the wake of the SDS RAIN, 18km from Marseille coasts. The ship, from la Fos-sur-Mer, is heading to Turkey. The discharge leads to a pollution over 22km long and 50m wide. The SDS RAIN is deverted from its destination, stopped and immobilized on the port of Marseille. A few days later, the ship goes back to sea after the company has paid a deposit of 800 000 euros. 

In response, Surfrider Europe formed a civil party to demand accountability and ensure this pollution does not continue to go unpunished. The SDS RAIN had been the 12th ship since 2008 to be investigated in France for rejection of polluting substances, and the 2nd in Mediteranean. 

The trial began in January 2012 in Marseille. At first verdict, the SDS RAIN owner was charged with a 750 000 euro fine, and 250 000 euros charged to the captain. A former appeal was then presented to the court by the company who claimed that the crew was cleaning the deck while the pollution had been detected, and that it was not hydrocarbons being released at sea, but cargo residues from the deck wash water.The judges established that doubt remained about the substance intentionally released.

2014 : a new rebound in the case

To the prosecutor, the civil parties and the customs expert, there was no doubt about the presence of hydrocarbons in the marine pollution that occured in 2010, but on May 13th 2014, the Court of Cassation sided with the appeal and reversed the charge against the SDS Rain.

The case was then judged again, ahead the Court of Appeal of Aix en Provence. After several attempts, on April 6th 2017, the Court of Appeal finally found the SDS RAIN ship captain and shipowner guilty of the original charges and fined the defendants 1 million euros. At this point, the prosecutors felt confident that this verdict would hold, but the case was about to experience a new twist.

The defendants appealled once again to the Court of Cassation. Like the Court of Appeal, in May 2018 the Court of Cassation recognized  the owner and the captain guilty of the offense of unlawful rejection of hydrocarbons on the sea, but withdrew the judgment of the Court of Appeal on the civil provisions. After more than 8 years of trail, it was a victory for Mediteranean preservation, but Surfrider still had to prove the injury ahead of the Court of Appeal of Aix en Provence. 

2019 : victory at the end of a long fight

Surfrider Europe returned to the Court of Appeal of Aix en Provence to bring a final charge against the defendants to recognize the damage done to the environment and its users. However, the charge never made it to court. Before the hearing, the captain and the owner withdrew their appeal and accepted to pay damages and interests. On September 27th 2019, the case was finally closed. The SDS Rain and personnel have yet to pay the damages. 

The SDS RAIN sentence is the culmination of an important action carried out by Surfrider Europe for almost 10 years. Other battles still remain active like in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, in France, where the creation of a 'pleasure' harbor threatens coastal ecosystems, currents, and marine fauna and flora. Visit the Coastal Defenders' website for more information on our current actions.

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