European Court of Justice: Costs of disposing of waste from a sinking oil tanker from coastline and beaches to be imposed on producer

The Italian company ENEL concluded a contract with Total International Ltd for the supply of heavy fuel oil from Dunkirk (France) to Milazzo (Italy). To carry out the contract, Total raffinage distribution, now Total France SA, sold the heavy fuel oil to Total International Ltd, which chartered the oil tanker Erika, flying the Maltese flag. On 12 December 1999 the Erika sank off the coast of Brittany (Finistère, France), spilling part of her cargo and oil from her bunkers into the sea and causing pollution of the Atlantic coastline of France.The municipality of Mesquer brought proceedings against the companies in the Total group for reimbursement of the cost of cleaning and anti-pollution operations on its coastal territory, relying on the Waste Directive. The municipality claimed that the hydrocarbons accidentally spilled at sea constituted waste within the meaning of the directive, so that the companies Total International Ltd and Total France should be liable for the cost of disposal, in their capacity as ‘previous holders’ or ‘producer of the product from which the waste came’ respectively.The Court considers that the heavy fuel oil carried by the ship is not ‘waste’, as it is exploited or marketed on economically advantageous terms and is capable of actually being used as a fuel without requiring prior processing. However, such hydrocarbons spilled in connection with a shipwreck, mixed with water and sediment and drifting along the coastline of a Member State until being washed up on shore, must be regarded as substances which their holder did not intend to produce and which he discards, albeit involuntarily, while they are being transported, so that they must be classified as waste within the meaning of the directive.The Court recalls that the Waste Directive provides, in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, that that cost must be borne by the ‘previous holders’ or the ‘producer of the product from which the waste came’. The shipowner may be regarded as having produced the waste and on that basis be classified as a ‘holder’ within the meaning of the directive. However, the national court may consider that the seller of hydrocarbons and charterer of the ship carrying them has ‘produced’ waste if it finds that the seller-charterer contributed to the risk that the pollution caused by the shipwreck would occur. If, however,the national law of a Member State, including the law derived from international agreements, prevents that cost from being borne by the shipowner and the charterer, even though they are to be regarded as ‘holders’, such a national law will then have to make provision for that cost to be borne by the ‘producer of the product from which the waste came’, if he has contributed by his conduct to the risk that the pollution caused by the shipwreck will occur.Source: ECJ press realease>>.

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