Saint-Nazaire, France


On the 16th of March 2008, following a leak from a rusty pipeline at the Donges-Est Refinery during the refuelling of a vessel, around 500 tonnes of fuel spill into the Loire estuary. The accident causes considerable environmental damage, and in particular the destruction of many species protected under the Natura 2000 network (pollution of mud flats and reed beds).

The Loire Estuary is a Special Area of Conservation by virtue of the Directive on birds, as it plays host to a colony of corncrakes. In the light of the serious harm the area is likely to suffer, it goes without saying that the company must assume responsibility for the ecological damage caused.

The pollution, which is termed 'serious' by the Minister for Ecology M. Borloo, has contaminated an important ecological heritage. It takes three and a half months to clean 90 km of the estuary shores and surrounding coastlines, which have allegedly been polluted by the 500 tonnes of heavy fuel. Only after about a week, the spill is revised to 100 tonnes.  To our greatest surprise, not a single bird is found covered in oil.

In April 2008, the office of the Saint-Nazaire court orders a judicial investigation into the 'pollution', after the local communes and environmental organisations announce that they will press charges. The Pays de La Loire Region and the General Council of the Vendée Department also press charges.  Surfrider Foundation Europe and many other environmental associations file civil lawsuits to ensure condemnation of and sanctions for this new environmental damage.

In November 2010, the office of the Saint-Nazaire court calls for the transfer of the case against the company Total to the criminal courts. It is now up to an investigating judge to make the final decision, which is expected before the end of the year. The civil party is planning to apply the case law established during the trial surrounding the sinking of the Erika in 1999. The notion of ecological prejudice was then coined, which gave communities the power to demand compensation for environmental damage in addition to material and non-material damages.

During the trial on the 3rd and 4th of October 2011, the prosecuting attorney demands two fines of €300,000 and €5,000 respectively as he believes that the risks have been underestimated and that "Total had never taken this risk factor into account, despite it being known beyond doubt". Total rejects the claim of having neglected its obligations, despite the fact that certain recurrent malfunctions are highlighted by an expert during the trial.

The Criminal Court of Saint-Nazaire renders its verdict in the case of the Donges Refinery on the 17th of January 2012 and sentences the company Total Raffinage Marketing to a €300,000 fine for the spilling of bunker fuel "into the higher ground water wells or into the ocean", and for the hydrocarbon spill which is "harmful to the subsistence of or the consumption by wildlife and plants". The third count however, relating to the "improper exploitation of a classified authorised installation", is not upheld.

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