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Accident date
Accident area
Lavezzi islands (Bonifacio, Corsica)
Spill area
Cause of spill
Quantity transported
2, 650 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
Quantity spilled
2, 500 tonnes
Ship / structure type
Grain carrier
Built date
86 m
12.4 m
6 m

The foodstuffs problem

As with any cargo shipped by sea, foodstuffs occasionally find their way into the marine environment after a vessel collides, sinks or runs aground.

There are many examples of this type of incident, including:

  • The Kimya , a Maltese cargo vessel that sank near Anglesey (UK) in January 1991 spilling 1500 tonnes of sunflower oil
  • the Weisshorn , carrying rice, ran aground on a sand bank in the winter of 1992-1993 just off the Guadalquivir estuary in Spain and gradually broke up
  • the cargo vessel the Infiniti, carrying a cargo of rice, spilled 400 tonnes of its cargo on a coral reef in the marine park offshore Curacao in the summer of 1995
  • The Allegra , a Liberian bulk carrier collided during the first week of September 1997 spilling 250 tonnes of palm oil that beached on the Channel islands.

When news of such incidents reaches us and no loss of life is reported, our first reaction is to sigh a big sigh of relief. Such situations are extremely unfortunate for the insurer, but the fish are in for a feast. Or at least, that's what one might expect, however things don't exactly work like that. The fish are generally far too few to consume such a sudden and plentiful source of food, even over a period of several months. As a result, the cargo is carried away by currents and evolves depending on its nature (emulsification, rotting, polymerisation, fermention), not to mention the bacterial proliferation and generation of gas it causes, thereby polluting the marine environment.

The Fenes accident

The Lavezzi Islands' Nature Park (in the Bonifacio Straits) suffered a similar fate after the Fenes ran aground on 25 September 1996 on the very island where, on 15 February 1855, the frigate the Sémillante also ran aground on her way to Sebastopol with 773 men on board, none of whom survived.

In the case of the Fenes, no lives were lost and there was no oil pollution, thanks to the quick reaction on behlf of the Préfecture Maritime in Toulon and the vessel's insurers. The bunkers and lube oils were removed from the vessel by 10 October. Nonetheless, the autumn storms took their toll on the hull, finally breaking it up and the vessel released her cargo into a rocky creek 10 metres deep.


The seagrass bed, the Posidonia (a protected species, since 1988) the seaweed and the sessile animals were covered by a thick layerof wheat, ranging from dozens of centimetres to several metres. Local park officials feared the worst and rightly so. Local politicians, authorities and associations were outraged by the spill, not to mention the navigation hazard which was an issue that had long concerned them all and the matter took on inordinate proportions in the minds of local populations that then started referring to the spill as "underwater cancer".

Something had to be done, not only remove the vessel but the wheat as well. The Préfecture Maritime in Toulon knew it would have to apply Polmar instructions which were to take the necessary measures to avoid marine pollution and have the insurers do what was required to ensure the operation was completed and paid for. This was easier said than done. The Préfecture Maritime availed itself of Cedre's expertise in a bid to develop a response strategy for an unprecedented incident.

Response at sea

To start with, unfounded accusations had to be dealt with. The wheat had been grown in France and was in fact food aid being sent from France to Albania. The wheat had been loaded at Port-La-Nouvelle and, contrary to the claims of one scientist, had not been sprayed with 250 litres of bioaccumulable pesticide, thus giving rise to doubts as to its nutritional quality and justifying its immediate removal in a bid to protect marine fauna and flora. It had in fact been sprayed with 15 kgs of biodegradable pesticide with a half life in seawater of no more than a few days. The pesticide had been diluted in 250 litres of vegetable oil to mitigate dust and prevent infestation by weevils. Measures needed to be taken, but there was no urgency or any evident sign of pollution.

The vessel's structure was strengthened on 13 October with a view to complete removal of the wreck in one piece. But on 16 October strong winds buckled the hull and the crew of 11 had to be lifted off the deck in difficult conditions by an Air Force helicopter. On 20 October the owner inspected the vessel and was convinced by Cedre experts that the only viable solution was now to break the vessel up and have her removed in sections. The Préfecture Maritime agreed to this on 23 October.

On 31 October, the shipowner recognised that it was technically feasible to remove the wheat, all that remained was to justify the intervention. According to French legislation this meant that there had to be a risk of pollution or at the very least that the spilled wheat was considered to be waste material. The situation was finally categorised as a full blown pollution incident at a meeting of scientists chaired by Cedre on 14 November at the Préfecture Maritime. On 20 November a meeting with the owner determined the technical details for the intervention and on 28 November the barge and equipment were on site.

Participants at the meeting on 14 November quickly reached an agreement on how best to remove the wheat (suction hoses handled by divers), on the extent of the operation (until the tips of the Posidonia reappeared) and on who would oversee the operation (divers working for the nature park). The most difficult decision however was to decide how to dispose of the wheat and the polluted water (8 to 10 times the quantity of spilled wheat): should it be left to drip dry in situ or not, disposed of further out to sea or be shipped ashore to be incinerated in a certified facility which would mean shipment by road from Bonifacio to Corte?

A meeting at interministerial level comprising a thorough examination of the environmental situation encouraged scientists and the Ministry of the Environment to accept the decision to dump the non-contaminated wheat further offshore. The wheat would be dumped outside the marine park and in such a fashion as not to exceed limits of 1 kg of wheat per square metre of seabed.

The pumping operation commenced on 4 December and the wheat was allowed to drip dry via a sieve system situated in a hosepipe used for disposing of the polluted water far from the creek. Recovered wheat was dumped for the first time under French Navy supervision 20 nautical miles offshore in depths of 300 metres on 7 December.
 Emissions of hydrogen sulphide, in addition to significant quantities of methanol and ethanol affecting men and equipment led the Préfecture Maritime to suspend the operation on 20 December for health reasons. The operation resumed on 27 December once responders on the barge had been given masks and filters and the divers had received facial protection and gloves.
 On 13 January, after 10 round trips offshore involving about 2 500 tonnes of wet wheat which made up about three quarters of the entire cargo carried by the Fenes, the Préfecture Maritime notified the owners that the dumping operation had been completed as recommended by the divers. The next priority was to remove the wreck and debris from the seabed located between 8 and 20 metres deep and stretching 500 metres along the coastline. This operation was postponed until after the winter months, between 10 April and 10 May 1997. The owner requested permission to dump debris offshore but permission was denied and the debris had to be taken to a Greek shipyard for disposal.
When the pollution factor had been dealt with, the Préfecture Maritime was no longer required to respond according to the provisions of the Polmar Plan. All that remained was to monitor and quantify the impact of the spill on marine fauna and flora in the area that had been directly affected by the wheat, in addition to the surrounding area.


Pollution follow-up

The Préfecture Maritime and the Ministry of the Environment agreed to entrust the job to the Marine Environment Lab of Nice University under the leadership of the nature park's scientific advisor. Cedre had already closely examined the fermentation process and the hydrogen sulphide emissions caused by microbial proliferation of sulphate-reducing bacteria. They then resolved to monitor subsequent wheat degradation processes in addition to bacteriological developments in the polluted area. The work in question is currently underway and will allow our scientists to gain more knowledge about wheat degradation kinetics, bacteriological pollution developments, how long it takes fauna and flora, and in particular the Posidonia beds, to recolonise in addition to ascertaining whether or not to reinstate the Posidonia beds in a bid to speed up recolonisation.

According to the information currently available, eight hectares of Posidonia have been affected one way or another. A serious impact has been noted in 3.9 hectares and complete destruction of the grass beds has been reported on 2 500 m2 of Posidonia. The effect is therefore evident but is thankfully limited to a small portion of the park that covers 10,000 hectares.


The phases reported here were not easy to complete. Many meetings had to be organised and they were sometimes fraught with difficulties. Representatives from the Préfecture Maritime and of the owner were sometimes severely criticised by the people whose vested interests they were defending.

The insurers no doubt considered they were unjustly denied permission to dump Fenes' debris offshore when national television stations reported that an unmanned fishing vessel had been scuttled off the Breton coast. Expert's fees have not been recouped neither have scientific monitoring costs which all remain to be negotiated. Environmental damage and costs have not even been discussed. Discussion never broke down and for the first time in France, the Préfecture Maritime managed to ensure, through reasonable and unstinting effort, both legally and technically speaking, that the owner did not shirk his responsibilities from beginning to end and to all intents and purposes removed the wheat from the environment.

Last update on 14/10/2002

External links

CIIMAR database:  fate and weathering of Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) involved

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