Pollution in Corsica: why Surfrider Foundation Europe is filing a complaint


On June 11 2021, a 35 km long pollution zone was spotted in the Mediterranean Sea during a military air exercise off the town of Solenzara in Corsica. At the time of these observations, the two oil slicks were located about 9km off the east coast of the island (between Aléria and Solenzara).

After analyzing the images taken by the aircraft, experts from CEDRE (Center for Documentation, Research and Experimentation on Accidental Water Pollution) and CEPPOL (Center for Practical Expertise in Pollution Response), determined that the slicks were made up of heavy grade oil, which are particularly harmful to the marine environment. Given the extent of the pollution and the products involved, a significant anti-pollution operation at sea (leading to the recovery of 3 to 4 tonnes of heavy fuel oil) was organised and the "POLMAR/Terre" (Maritime Pollution in Coastal Areas) plan was activated.

The threat of oil residues reaching the coast led to the prohibition of both nautical and economic activities on various beaches in the eastern and southern part of Corsica. Before the start of the summer season, after a challenging year for the tourism industry, everyone was on tenterhooks. It was therefore a relief when the authorities finally established that the slicks had changed course and only a few tar balls were washed up on Corsican beaches.

Although the slicks remained a long way from the coast, Surfrider is very angry

First of all, just because the pollution did not reach the shore in the proportions initially expected, this does not mean that it will not cause lasting pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. The dissolution of heavy hydrocarbons is difficult: they sink, come back up and disperse, break down into finer and finer particles and mix with waste. The impact this pollution has caused on the marine environment in the area is already irreversible. Corsica is particularly well-known for its unique and very rich marine biodiversity and this new pollution threatens endemic species and their habitats.

Furthermore, this pollution is very likely the result of a ship illegally discharging hydrocarbons into the sea. This practice consists of cleaning tanks containing residues of polluting substances and discharging the contaminated water at sea, rather than in the port facilities provided for this purpose but which are chargeable. Those vessels intentionally pollute in the expectation that this will bring economic benefits (potential cost saving benefits). These discharges are deliberate, illegal and cause significant ecological damage both to marine ecosystems and to populations. 

At present, it is still not known which vessel is responsible for the infringement, so we are talking about "orphan pollution" (pollution from an unidentified source). And although we rarely hear about it, this is nevertheless a common phenomenon (106 cases of "orphan" pollution out of 159 confirmed cases in 2019 in France - Marine pollution surveillance report. Annual report 2019) . Too often, these sea thugs are never identified and therefore go unpunished for their illegal practices. 

In order to fight against this type of pollution and to develop jurisprudence for a better application of the polluter-pays principle, Surfrider Foundation Europe has filed a complaint against a person unknown and will become a plaintiff if legal action is taken. 

"Not seen not caught" 

The French legal system is very efficient when ships are caught in the act of illegally discharging polluting substances. However, no trial and therefore no conviction has taken place when the pollution is not observed by an aircraft in the immediate wake of the ship.

France and Europe have the means to detect "orphan pollution" and to establish links with the ships present in the area. By using the European pollution-monitoring satellite system Cleanseanet, which makes it possible to detect illegal discharges in real time, and by coupling this with information on maritime traffic (thanks in particular to the AIS vessel identification system, which indicates the position and the speed of the ship), it is quite possible to obtain a preliminary view of the ships in the area. It follows that a list of main suspects can easily be established. In 2019, the satellite system detected more than 7,000 cases of potential pollution in European waters.

Following satellite detection, aerial equipment can be dispatched to confirm a pollution and catch a ship illegally discharging or else acquire valuable information that can be used to prosecute. This is precisely what happened in Spain and the scenario led to the detention of an oil tanker flying the Liberian flag which had carried out an illegal discharge off the Canary Islands in June 2021, shortly after the pollution in the Corsican zone had been discovered. 

In the case of the "orphan" pollution in Corsica, the public prosecutor has taken up the case and entrusted the investigation to the maritime police. Their goal is to gather as much evidence as possible so that the case can be taken to court. 

The hunt is on 

The identification of the suspicious vessels is still in progress. In addition to the satellite images and the AIS consultation, police have asked specialists to perform a reverse drift to analyze the trajectory of the slicks in order to determine their starting point. At this stage, three ships present in an enlarged area around the pollution and which, in view of their capacity, may have caused it, are being checked out by the investigation squad.

The targeted vessels will then be interviewed and inspections will be carried out in order to compare samples, in particular those taken from the polluting slick and from the vessels' tanks. If the vessel identified is French, the hearings will be carried out by the maritime police. In the case of ships from foreign ports, the prosecutor from the specialized jurisdiction of Marseille may request international cooperation. Maritime transport involves a great number of countries, between the States victim of the pollution, the flag State, and those where the ships suspected call.

The investigation is therefore far from over and sometimes it may take years for a trial to take place. Surfrider Europe is remaining on the alert and will do everything to ensure that the captain and ship-owner causing the pollution are held accountable.

The case is very important for our Association which since 2008 has been leading a real legal battle against the polluters of the seas. Surfrider Europe has developed a litigation strategy so that the "polluter pays" principle is applied as fully as possible. Every time an illegal discharge occurs in waters under French jurisdiction, Surfrider Europe takes action to ensure that the case is brought to court and provides its expertise during the hearings. We believe that large and systematic fines have a real deterrent effect on potential maritime delinquents.

It should also be noted that Surfrider Europe has been working for years on the use of new technologies to provide evidence before specialized courts, so that no pollution remains "orphan" and unpunished. We want to send a strong signal to polluters by showing them that prosecution and sanctions are possible, even if they are not caught red-handed in the act.

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