Brittany’s Black sea

Par Aileen Hennes.

Article publié dans KLASSEKAMPEN et le New internationalist en juin 2001.

Brittany's black sea couverture du magazine New Internationalist

The southern coast of Brittany – last year drenched in oil when the oil-tanker « Erika » broke in two not far off-shore – is slowly re-emerging. The cargo carried by the « Erika » – a thick glutinous bitumen destined for fuel at Italy’s national power plant: NL – was thrown not only onto the beaches, but also onto the cliffs by storm force waves. As we drive from St. Nazaire towards Lorient one year after the accident we see cleaning-up still in progress. We also become aware that this piece of nature – a mere strip of sand and rocks – is under double attack. Not only from last year’s disaster, but from continual exposure to oil-slicks from the sea as well as from a rapidly encroaching tourism on land. The latter assault is paradoxically added to by the cleaning… 


The Bretons are quick with a smile, charming and welcoming to strangers. But for how long? Due to economic pressure they are having to re-locate into inland villages – away from their customary livelihoods of fishing and salt-extraction. The real estate market is soaring as people are buying secondary homes along the coastline and the small towns are being remodelled with residences and other facilities for holidaymakers and pensioners.

Driving along the beach road on the Guerande peninsula – next to an interminable row of shuttered summerhouses – we see small groups of whiteclad workers digging in the sand with scrapes and trowels, looking as if they are on some archeological dig.

Benoit Bonnell, president of Collectif Citoyen anti Marée Noir – a politically independant association – explains that these workers are unemployed from various parts of France, imported to help clean the beaches by the POLMAR state initiative.

Down inside a deep hollow, pale skinned tattooed youths with nose- and ear-rings are finding asphalt at 1.5 m. beneath the surface. While tapping the grass, a clutch of florid old alcoholics are listening for patches of oil. I complement them on their expertise. They laugh: « Us experts? Not likely! »

Still, as we shall see, there are not many that can out – expertise them.

And, not all the cleaning takes on such a gentle form. On another site further along the beach other men and women, their yellow habits indicating that they are employed by Total-Fina-Elf, are blasting the asphalt that is coating the rocks with pressurized hot water. Clambering about on the rockface they leave no stone unturned and the oil that runs off in the process is being collected in pools improvised with plastic sheeting and from there sucked up into tanks.

This cleaning is like a scorched earth policy; it leaves nothing behind. Even the rock is made porous and whiter than white.


Dr. Bernard Fychaut, vetran cleaner of oil-spills from the Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdes, is not happy about the methods employed, but for some reason he was not called in to oversee the cleaning operation before several months had passed.

“The priority has not been towards sparing nature, but rather towards impressing tourists with the message that all is well. »


This is criticism we hear often repeated. Only those responsible for the disaster seem oblivious to the fact that they may be perpetuating the damage done.

On behalf of the oil-company Total-Fina-Elf, Jean Pierre Labbé describes the cleaning process glibly – or perhaps naively: “We are rebuilding the eco-system”.


It is André Gouyllou at « Direnne » (Direction Regional de l’Environnement) in Rennes who apparently is in charge of this momumental task. When asked exactly how he is going about it he laughs and says: « You tell me! »

He’s aware of the euphemistic description of his work by Total-Fina-Elf, a work which in reality is limited to assessing the damage done. He’s also aware that some of the cleaning methods used will add to the time it is going to take to mend.

So what are the concerns of the tourist sector?

André Gouyllou explains: « France is to a large extent run by local government. In this particular instance we are seeing the negative side of this when local mayors with no concerns over and above the economics of their regions are able to take decisions that have devastating effects on the environment. « 


Let’s take a look at the cribleuse – a monster with which “Nine out of ten mayors prefer to clean the sand” – which the oil companies are quequeing up to give away with much public handshaking.

Catherine Jean, director of « Le Observatoire de Marée Noir » explains how it works: « The ‘cribleuse’ is a crusher which looks like a large mower when it is pushed along the beaches. It crushes everything bigger than a grain of sand, which in effect means the destruction of all life from plants – perhaps most importantly the black algae that belongs on the Brittany beaches – to cockles, to birds-eggs. It would have been bad enough if it had been used only once, but as it is the mayors in all the tourist resorts see it as a means to clean the beaches to a Mediterranean style whiteness forever more.”


In addition to the sandblasting and the cribleuse 150 million tonnes of sand has been removed from the beaches and brought to the Elf refinery at Donges where it still awaits treatment.

« Was this necessary? » I ask Dr. Fychaut.

« No. If I’d been consulted in time I would have suggested surf cleaning, a method by which the polluted sand would be pushed into the surf and thrown back by the waves, leaving the residues of the bitumen in lumps to be picked up at the water’s edge. But it would have meant that some bits would remain and possibly cause fear or disgust among tourists. »

« But is the bitumen not a carcinogen? »

« The risk from the odd piece of residual bitumen is unquantifieably slight. »


Laurent Brucy, LPO (Ligue pour le Protection des Oiseaux), points out that the decision made to clean the sand with the cribleuse all but wiped out last year’s fledgling ‘gravelots'(Charadrius hiaticula or sandpipers). In order to have the beaches look nice for the arrival of the first tourists the cleaning operations were carried out at the height of the breeding season.

He also tells us of 300.000 dead seabirds in the immediate wake of the disaster. And another 64.000 that were brought in to the LPO cleaning stations, out of which 20.000 have survived. And still the LPO bird hospital in Lorient run by Martine and Patrick Luhan, is full. The couple who had already established a bird cleaning centre in their home in answer to other, smaller accidents, from 1989 onwards, has had a more suitable building made available by the municipality of Lorient. Despite the fact that the patients are birds – guillemots, gannets, puffins – it resembles a military hospital inasmuch as these healthy, strong, perfectly adapted creatures are damaged – the majority beyond repair – by human determination to change the world at any cost.


More than one year has passed since « Erika » sank, but there has still not been an independent inquiry into the accident.

Meanwhile Allison Duncan lobbies on behalf of the LPO and Birdlife International for double hulls on tankers, better surveillance at sea, more frequent and thorough inspections, mandatory cleaning out of tanker’s hulls at the proper facilities ashore and an Environmental liability directive…

« BUT it takes approx. 8 yrs to get any subject treated by the I.M.O., » says Duncan.

Greenpeace would like to see both cargo- and ship-owner made liable in case of accident. They are hoping to get something like the oil-pollution-act currently operating in the U.S.A. passed in the EU-parliament.

Asked what he thinks about the cleaning operations Bruno Rebelle, director of Greenpeace, France, has this to say: « We think the cleaning has been far too harsh. – In an ideal world, » Rebelle laughs at the idea, « we’d accept a period of waiting while nature took care of its own repairs as far as possible. Certainly a large part of the one billion francs that Total has paid out has been spent just adding to the damage already done. »


Meanwhile, Benoit Bonnel, marine biologist and president of Collectif Citoyen Anti Marée Noire, is serving oysters for lunch. He has given up his scientific career to become a Conchyliculteur – a grower of cockles. The seafood farm, a small factory, in which he’s an independant grower, is on the inside of the Guerande peninsula and was not directly hit by the oil. Even so they were closed down for 5 months, due to chemical residues in the water.

As were the salt-marshes, the bedrock of the region and a vital feeding ground for migrating birds. A ‘filling station’ en route south across the Bay of Biscay, or north all the way to Finnmark or Siberia.

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