LE POULIGUEN, LOIRE-ATLANTIQUE, FRANCE, 2000

A group of volunteers clean the coasts of the town of Le Pouliguen following the sinking of the Maltese oil tanker Erika

Gaumy© Jean Gaumy / Magnum Photos


There was no white Christmas for the residents of Brittany’s coasts in December 1999, after a tanker ran into a heavy storm, broke in two and sank. During that event, 20,000 tonnes of oil poured into the sea before being carried by the tide toward French beaches. The damage was extensive: it is estimated that about 400 km of coastline were polluted by the spill.
These “black tides” frighten us still today: sadly, damage caused by oil spills at sea was a common feature of major accidents in the past. But our world depends on oil, with consumption rising steadily over the last 20 years to 4.66 billion tonnes in 2018.
The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) points out that the amount of oil spilled at sea has declined from the 70s. However, it also reports a very negative figure: approximately 5.73 million tonnes of oil were released due to accidents involving oil tankers between 1970 and 2016. This problem cannot be resolved simply by adopting specific provisions in crude oil transport and storage regulations. In fact, one of the most serious problems is that no totally efficient methods have been devised to clean up the environmental damage caused by oil.
In fact, it can take months or even years to clear damage from hydrocarbon spills at sea only partially, while they cause considerable damage to ecosystems.

Jessica Marzaro