At the news of the incident, on 12 December, the Cedre's duty engineer immediately informed the Management. The response office was activated and staffed.
TotalFinaElf was contacted to provide information on the fuel and a sample for experimentation. The agreement with MétéoFrance was put into force for slick drift forecasts.
Technical advisers were then seconded to the Polmar Sea Command Centre of the Maritime prefecture. Cedre's staff in our office were responsible for:
- assisting our advisers in the Polmar Sea Command Centre.
- providing the interface between the French Navy and Météo France.
- informing the authorities through a daily situation summary.
- gathering and summarising information on similar incidents.
- checking the available information on accessible response resources.
During the night, 200 l of the fuel n°6 from the same batch loaded on the Erika arrived from the TotalFinaElf Flandres refinery, in Dunkirk. A behaviour and weathering test was initiated in our test flume.
Over the following days, the above-mentioned activites continued, and Cedre exchanged information with its European partners and seeked possible support from them. Technical discussions took place with experts dispatched by the IOPC Fund 92.
Other technical advisers where dispatched to the Polmar Land Command Centres when the departmental plans were activated. From 25 December and for the first half of 2000, 8 to 12 of our technical advisors were permanently based in Command Centres and on different sites along the shoreline. Technical summaries of the situation were produced daily. A file dedicated to the Erika pollution was opened and regularly updated to answer the many questions reaching us and to face the considerable increase of visitors on our website. Urgent experiments, tests and qualifications of response products and equipment were carried out both in our technical facilities and on site.
The major constraints faced were:
- The permanent request from the authorities for faster, more frequent and highly personalised information.
- The surge of the media, with more than 50 journalists contacting Cedre daily, looking for immediate answers to technical questions they considered essential.
- The flow of inventors, suppliers and industry-related professionals (more than 600) who required priority and personalised processing of their proposals, a constraint we could only face by calling upon assistance from the French Petroleum Institute, IFREMER and European partners through the European emergency task force.
There was evident discrepancy between the extent of the pollution and Cedre's resources: with so many Polmar Command Centres activated at same time, our small workforce was far insufficient for the full accomplishment of our statutory mission. We had to make choices. The immense need for fast and accurate technical information for the media and general public could not be met. As a consequence, the work achieved by the association over the past twenty years to improve response techniques was dramatically ignored. Such limitations were no surprise. When concluding the October 1998 scientific conference "20 years after the Amoco Cadiz", in Brest, Cedre's director declared: "We know that the risk is permanent and that we do not have an answer for everything. No matter what we do to prevent the incident, to be better prepared, to improve the response management, some observers will not understand that there are limits to our power, others will criticise what we will do and explain after the event what we should have done".
Despite the circumstances, Cedre carried on with its mission. This was underlined in the report of the Erika Inquiry Committee of the National Assembly by the following words "The Inquiry Committee is making a point of paying a tribute to this small associative organisation for the quality of the work it achieved despite the modesty of its resources". The Interministerial Committee of the Sea convened on 28 February 2000 determined that the subsidy allocated to Cedre by the Ministry of the Environment would be multiplied by 3 starting from 2001, in order to increase its response capacity both on the technical and communication fronts.
The volume of oil pumped from the wreck allowed experts to establish an estimate of the quantity of oil spilled at between 19,000 and 20,000 tonnes. Harsh weather conditions on the day of the incident and during the following weeks, except for a very short period (a few days) of fair weather, meant that containment and recovery operations at sea could not be fully carried out. The long drift of the slicks at sea, their fragmentation and the insolubility of the heavy fuel led to wide scattering of the product. The first strandings of the oil on the coast occured 11 days after the incident. In total, 450 km of shoreline were polluted discontinuously in Finistère, Morbihan and Vendée, and quasi-continuously in Loire-Atlantique between 23 December and February. The sea most probably reclaimed a certain amount of oil which had already stranded on the coast or on the sea bottom.
Onshore response required tremendous manpower, particularly as regards clean-up. Coarse recovery, then final cleaning on an extended section of shoreline go to explain the amount of waste stored (around 210,000 tonnes in March 2001). The drifting and scattering of the oil slicks at sea were responsible for the extremely high mortality rate for birds.