Erika Captain: Tight Budgets Overrode Safety

Friday, February 11, 2000
The captain of the tanker Erika, which sank off France's west coast in December causing a huge oil spill, has said crews had to work to such tight budgets that safety standards could not always be met. The ship's captain, Karun Mathir, said many shipowners were obsessed with cutting costs "to the point of pushing crews through safety and endurance thresholds". "There are certain things that nobody dares to say, but the job has changed a lot, everything is going too fast, everything is dominated by money," the 36-year-old captain said. The Erika's crew was winched to safety when the vessel split apart and sank in stormy seas on Dec. 12. The spill of around half its 25,000-ton cargo of fuel oil devastated 250 miles of coastline, killed or maimed 300,000 sea birds and hurt fishing and tourism. It has also sparked widespread calls to tighten international maritime standards. Oil majors BP Amoco, Exxon-Mobil and TotalFina, which chartered the Erika, have already toughened rules on chartering older vessels. A preliminary French government report said a corroded bulkhead was probably the main cause of the breaking up of the Erika, calling into question the seaworthiness of the 25-year-old Maltese-registered vessel. The report absolved the crew of blame but accused both the owners and the company charged with monitoring its safety of failing to act on reports of potential problems. Mathur said the Erika's 26-strong crew compared with what used to be a norm of 60 people for a tanker of its size, meaning the Philippine crew had to work doubly hard and he was unable to allow himself more than six hours sleep a night. Stopover times at ports had become much shorter, meaning less times for paperwork to be completed, he added, while a gradual phasing out of radio officers meant there was now less coordination with insurers, shipowners and shipping authorities. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated on Saturday in Nantes over the response of the French government and TotalFina to the disaster. TotalFina has offered around $120 million to help pay for cleaning up, removing the oil still in the Erika's wrecked hull and promoting tourism in the area, but it maintains that legal responsibility for the accident lies with the owner.
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