The Erika volunteers attracted considerable media attention and were sometimes presented as the saviours of a situation that the marine pollution response mechanism was unable to control. On the other hand, they are far less visible in the archives: their numbers, their motivations, their presence on the coast, the work they did and the problems they encountered remain poorly documented to this day.
Cedre was keen to find out more, in order to better advise those in charge of organising and supervising volunteers in the event of a future oil spill. We therefore sought out information on the associations' websites, however very little detail is given of the volunteers' work, and very few volunteers recounted what they had done and experienced.
Faced with this lack of information, in June and July 2002 we missioned one of our interns, who was a surfer and himself a former Erika volunteer, to find out about the work carried out by volunteers during clean-up operations. To carry out this research, several methods were used simultaneously: an online survey, targeting the surfing community, an analysis of daily reports by the onsite command posts, a press review and interviews with leaders of volunteer groups identified through this press review.
The survey was conducted in collaboration with Surfrider Foundation Europe. A short questionnaire for former Erika volunteers was posted at the end of June on the Cedre and Surfrider Foundation websites. The questions concerned the conditions in which the volunteers had worked, whether they would repeat the experience, and whether they would be interested in training for the next time.
The survey was online for three months. Perhaps because the survey was conducted during the summer, and no doubt because the Erika spill was no longer making the headlines, the number of responses was surprisingly low: only 10 surveys were completed and returned to Cedre. It was therefore not possible to analyse the results in a meaningful way, other than noting the very strong motivation of the respondents.
Analysis of the daily records of equipment and human resources drawn up by the onsite command posts, as well as worksite log sheets in some cases, was limited to the northern Loire area in Loire-Atlantique, for the period from January to June 2000. The number of volunteers for each worksite and for each municipality was counted for each day. This count showed that the numbers and records needed to be handled with caution, as the volunteers had not always been recorded, especially at weekends.
The evolution of the number of volunteers in the area covered by the northern Loire onsite command post, from January to June 2000, was plotted and compared to the evolution of the professional personnel for the whole of the Loire-Atlantique area, for the same period.
While the number of volunteers decreased steadily between January and June 2000 (northern Loire area), the number of professional operators increased throughout this period (except in June) across the whole of the Loire-Atlantique area.
The graph shows a very strong volunteer presence for the first two months of operations (10,388 volunteer days in January, 5,662 volunteer days in February). The number of volunteers then dropped sharply. Several factors appear to have contributed to this decrease:
- the discouragement volunteers may have felt faced with the scale of the clean-up work
- controversies over the toxicity of fuel oil
- the increasing number of professional operators.
Unlike the Nakhodka oil spill in Japan, where large numbers of volunteers came to help at weekends, most volunteers here came for the week. As in Japan, the majority came from beyond the immediate vicinity of the affected coastline.
Interviews were conducted with volunteers in the municipalities of La Turballe, Le Pouliguen and Le Croisic. The people we met told us how they had felt during the disaster and their involvement in beach clean-up. These testimonials provided additional insight to the conclusions drawn simply from the analysis of the daily record sheets.