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Probable Pollution of the Coastline After the Sinking of "Great America"

A sheet of oil escaped from the ship "Grande-America" ​​after its sinking, drifting off La Rochelle, March 14
An oil slick escaped from the ship "Grande-America" ​​after its sinking, drifting off La Rochelle, March 14 NATIONAL NAVY / AFP

The sinking of Great America, which sank by 4,600 meters bottom in the Bay of Biscay, Tuesday, March 12, after a fire, could have had dramatic consequences for its crew.

In heavy weather, on the night of Sunday to Monday, the 27 people on board were saved from the flames thanks to the efforts of several ships of the Navy and to "The remarkable intervention" of a British frigate, reported the Maritime Prefect of the Atlantic, Vice Admiral Jean-Louis Lozier.

But the latter has warned in a solemn tone: now that the sailors of this ship flying the Italian flag could be routed, unharmed, to Brest, the consequences of this "Major crisis" are difficult to manage for the public authorities.

"At this distance from the coast, we are at the limit of intervention of our most powerful helicopters", said the maritime prefect Wednesday. The boat – a hybrid model of 30,000 tonnes, between containership and ro-ro – has indeed lost 330 kilometers off the Charente-Maritime.

"Very viscous oil"

From Hamburg, Germany, he was traveling to Casablanca, Morocco. According to its Italian shipowner Grimaldi Lines, it carried 365 containers, 45 of which contained hazardous materials, and more than 2,000 vehicles. Forty containers heavily damaged by the fire went overboard before the sinking.

The Great America contained 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. It is not a tanker and its sinking is not the same register as the worst oil spills affecting the coast, among which those caused by theAmoco Cadiz which had dumped 223 000 tonnes of oil at sea in 1978, the Boehlen (7 000 tonnes in 1976) or theErika (20 000 tonnes in 1999). Nevertheless, the aerial overflight made it possible to spot, as early as Wednesday, a first oil slick of 13 km long and 7 km wide. A second, 9 km by 7 km, was seen on Thursday.

Read also A second layer of pollution near the Atlantic coast after the sinking of "Great America"

These two tablecloths are now drifting full east at a speed of about twenty nautical miles a day. "This highly viscous oil is expected to reach the coast in a number of days, probably in fragmented form, sums up Nicolas Tamic, deputy director of the Center for Documentation, Research and Experiments on Accidental Water Pollution (Cedre). Everything now depends on the wind. Heavy resources are deployed on the zone. Two ships will attempt to confine the floating oil and a craft should recover some of this mixture of water and fuel oil. "

What are their chances of getting there when the weather conditions are very bad? Hard to say. In any case, the bunkers are still far from empty. What is currently on the surface represents "Probably 500 or 600 cubic meters out of the 2,200 tons", says Nicolas Tamic.

"Threats to marine life"

After a press conference in Brest alongside representatives of the maritime prefecture, Thursday, the Minister of ecological transition and solidarity, François de Rugy, should go Friday in La Rochelle. The mayor of the city, Jean-François Fountaine, is worried about the oyster and mussel farmers. On the Isle of Ré, the salt workers are preparing to barricade their salt marshes. In the prefectures of Charente-Maritime and Gironde, both pre-alert, we position and prepare antipollution equipment, shovels included.

As with every oil spill risk, many critics point to the lack of safety in maritime traffic which accounts for about 90% of the world's freight transport.

The Robin Hood Association was the first to alert on the cargo of the Great America. Not only on hazardous materials as understood by the International Maritime Organization – corrosive, flammable, explosive, infectious … – but also on what ships of this kind to Africa frequently carry.

"There are third-hand vehicles, tires, used electronics or appliances, reports Jacky Bonnemains, founder of Robin Hood. Even polystyrene objects or plastic cans are threats to marine life. But this is more difficult to argue before judges. "

"Abandonment of waste"

However, he should file a complaint for "Pollution and waste abandonment" before the Brest High Court, as he had done – unsuccessfully – when the Svendborg Maersk had lost at sea 517 containers in February 2014.

Several associations of the Atlantic facade members of France Nature Environment could also turn to justice. As for the activists of Sea Shepherd, who are currently conducting a warning campaign on the fate of dolphins, collateral victims of intense fishing in the Bay of Biscay, they are preparing to come to the aid of oiled seabirds.

Read also "Great America": three questions about a shipwreck and the risk of pollution in France

Martine Valo

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