Everyone has heard of the ERIKA case; the boat that sank off the coast of Brittany in December of 1999. Thousands of litres of fuel washed up on the beaches causing a major ecological catastrophe.
After years of judicial proceedings, the criminal case has finally started before the French Courts.
The French are, not unsurprisingly, at each other’s throats. The media and environmental groups are blaming TOTAL, the French oil giant; an easy target and the apparent cause of the pollution; the only organisation with deep pockets.
An experts’ report communicated to the Dunkirk Court in 2005 (“the Experts Report”) does not see TOTAL as a guilty party. Based on the facts and removed from emotional acumen the Experts Report shows that if the ERIKA sunk it is because of the wrongful practices and gross negligence of others and in particular of the RINA – the Italian authority in charge of certifying the boat’s seaworthiness – and of the independent inspector who was in charge of supervising structural works that never happened on the boat...but were paid for.
If the ERIKA had sunk because of a great big storm, all eyes could point at chance and fingers at TOTAL. But if the ERIKA’s demise is in fact the result of a combination of either gross negligence or fraudulent behaviour, then those that are responsible should be those pursued criminally.
The conclusions reached by the Experts Report before the Dunkirk Court as submitted on 2005 are that :
· The RINA had wrongly certified the ERIKA and was grossly negligent;
· The RINA did not conduct the necessary checks of independent surveyor’s report;
· The RINA did not take into consideration the reports of its own surveyors warning that the corrosion on the ERIKA warranted further enquiries;
· The independent surveyor hired to control work on the ERIKA did not in fact control anything, worst his 225 pages report:
§ erroneous measures the ERIKA structure,
§ evaluates wrongly the work that needs to be performed on the ERIKA downplaying dramatically the metal reinforcements needed to be done on the boat’s structure,
§ does not properly control the work performed on the ERIKA,
§ states the all necessary work on the ERIKA has been performed when it had NOT,
§ states that he has performed work which he could not possibly have performed;
§ advises RINA that the ERIKA should be approved for full certification.
On this basis the Experts Report concludes that it was not possible to know the structural conditions of the ERIKA when the boat left the port for its last journey. All the work reports and certificates conformed to regulations and showed that the boat was more than fine to undertake its journey.
The Experts Report shows that from the analysis of the ERIKA’s wreckage the RINA should not have delivered certificates authorizing the boat to navigate. It shows that there could not have been a real inspection performed by the RINA to deliver those certificates, because the ERIKA’s corrosion levels in its tanks were unacceptable. If the ERIKA had been properly inspected, it would never have obtained a certificate and it would have NOT taken to sea.
THE EVENTS’ CHRONOLOGY
In 1998, the RINA requests that structural work be performed on the ERIKA before certificates are granted
RINA the Government authorized Italian certification agency is in charge of the certification of the ERIKA. A February 1998 report by RINA stated that there is an important level of corrosion on the boat and that important repair works have to be undertaken before certificates are granted. In the summer of 1998, the repair work is undertaken in Bijela, Montenegro. Following this, full certification of the ERIKA is granted by RINA for five years – ending thus in 2003, four years after the boat sinks.
Repair work is undertaken under the supervision of independent and local RINA inspectors
The repair work was organized based on the inspector M. Paolillo’s directives. M. Paolillo is a specialist approved by RINA who is in charge of the structure’s thickness measurements (“Inspector”). M. Paolillo affirms in his report that he made 7,842 measures. The Inspector finds that the boat’s measurements are fine and that the repair is sufficient. However, the boat instead of receiving 209 tons of steel in extra structural reinforcement as provided in the contract, only receives 34.5 tons. The owner pays as if 209 tons of steel were put in place. The Inspector does not notice that the reinforcement is insufficient. RINA’s local surveyor it seems does not notice this either...or just bases his conclusions on the Inspector’s.
If the initial amount of tons of steel provided had been respected, the boat would not have sunk.
The repair work is approved by RINA which grants the full five years certification.
Monitoring of the ERIKA
Even fully certified boats need to undergo regular checks. In November 1999, M. Alga, RINA’s surveyor, writes a report stating that there is an alarming level of corrosion on the boat and that it is necessary to carry out new thickness measurements before January 2000. RINA fails to take into account this report and confirms the certification of the ERIKA.
The ERIKA sinks in December 1999.
The post mortem of the ERIKA
The Experts Report states that based on the examination of the wreck, a numerous errors were made in the inspection and repair work carried out in summer 1998.
The report of M. Paolillo, the Inspector of the repair work carried out in Bijela, contains an unexplainable number of incoherencies:
- M. Paolillo declares having taken 7,842 measures, but in fact this is materially impossible within the time that he declares having spent there.
- Moreover, 5,000 measures only would have been necessary to carry out the inspection of such a boat (Interestingly inspectors are paid according to the number of measures taken).
- M. Paolillo finds identical thickness measurements at different spots of the boat. This would have been impossible given the fact that wear and tear affects the different parts of the boat in different way, never identical.
- M. Paolillo indicates thickness measurements that are sometimes equivalent to the thickness measurements taken for a new boat which is absurd for a boat of the age of the ERIKA.
- The measures indicated a boat with a much thicker structure than what could be observed from the structure.
Moreover, the Experts Report presents the following elements that could shed some light on the reasons why the Inspector gave the “green light” to the ERIKA and RINA officials confirmed this.
- 34.5 tons of steel were added to the structure of the boat instead of the 209 tons provided in the contract that were initially ordered in compliance with what would have been necessary under the RINA rules; and
- The amount of the estimate for the structure in steel was US$ 715,000 but only US$157,000 was invoiced. Nearly US$ 500,000 was paid but is unaccounted for.
This brief summary merely presents some of the very unnerving mysteries that surround the ERIKA disaster. Why was the 225 pages Inspector’s report so adamantly positive in respect to the ERIKA’s seaworthiness? How could the RINA grant full five years certification given the levels of corrosion that the ERIKA suffered? All these mysteries are of course enhanced by the fact that M. Paolillo, the Inspector, is unable to provide the specific details of each measurement taken in 1998 as his computer was subsequently stolen (sic!).
The Paolillo Report contains numerous errors and inconsistencies. RINA should have noticed this. RINA didn’t. Instead it granted full certification! No one in Italy seems interested in this case. Why would they be? The ERIKA did not sink off the coast of Italy...