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Accident date
Île de Ré - France
Accident area
Sablanceaux beach (île de Ré)
Spill area
Cause of spill
Act of war
Nature of pollutant
bunker fuel
Ship / structure type
Paquebot de croisière
152 m
Chargeurs Réunis

The incident

While in dry dock in La Rochelle for repairs following a collision a few months previously, this 152 m passenger ship, requisitioned to evacuate French troops, was bombed in June 1940. Several blasts occurred and the ship burnt for two days. After being roughly repaired, it was towed and then grounded a few dozen metres from Sablanceaux beach on 18 September 1940.

The Foucault was no longer heard of for almost 60 years. Only a few material collectors continued to show interest in the wreck, between 1941 and 1952, gradually stripping it of most of its superstructures.

During summer 2000, in the midst of the tourist season, the wreck of the Foucault, heavily silted and emerging only in places, released a considerable quantity of oil for the first time. Most probably shaken by the violent storm of December 1999 and the effects of the weather and sea, the wreck, grounded in shallow waters (1 to 5 metres below chart datum), oiled a particularly popular section of shoreline, while the Atlantic coast was still reeling from the Erika spill.

Spill response

A boom was rapidly deployed and pumping operations were organised, with locally available means, resulting in the recovery of 35m3 of bunker fuel.

The wreck nevertheless continued to leak slowly, causing the State to launch a feasibility study for its complete decontamination.

Until 2004, oil continued to leak sporadically from wreck, but more markedly in the summer, although the quantity released could not be accurately assessed. For a while, the intermittent character of releases maintained some doubt over the origin of the pollution. Was it from the wreck of the Foucault, operational discharge from passing ships, or even, after 2003, from the Prestige spill?

Given the scattered nature of the pollution, the question of a risk assessment was particularly complex.

The initial fire onboard the Foucault and the preconceived idea that the army of occupation had emptied the ship’s bunkers of its precious fuel before grounding it, together with the results of pumping operations conducted in 2000 (thought to have emptied its last few cubic metres), suggested that the last leaks, expected to cease in the short term, consisted of only some residues mixed with seafloor sediment. Nevertheless, due to the site’s socio-economic sensitivity and its habitats’ environmental wealth (Natura 2000 site, leatherback sea turtles, marine mammals), there was no room for assumptions.

Further investigation was conducted onsite, in particular with support from deep-sea divers from the DDE (French Departmental Equipment Directorate) and the French Navy's bomb disposal diving squadron. Approaching the wreck was particularly dangerous because of much reduced visibility due to the site’s natural turbidity, strong tidal currents and the wreck’s position in the beach’s surf zone, as well as interlaced strips of metal left following material removal work. The acquisition of additional information was therefore limited.

Finally, the quantity of oil liable to still be present in the wreck was estimated at a maximum of 50m3, located in the bunker and ballast tanks in the engine area. The decision was made to remove this part of the wreck, this being the only long term solution to stop the pollution. This was without doubt a wise decision, not only from an environmental point of view but also in terms of safety, as 150 shells were discovered.

Removal operations

Although the site conditions appeared favourable (shallow water, shelter from islands Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron, port infrastructures nearby as back-up…), the operations were made difficult by the cluttered area (seven other wrecks surrounding the Foucault) and by the wreck’s location in the beach’s surf zone.

A tender was issued for an estimated total of 1.5 million Euros, covering the decontamination of the Foucault as well as the treatment of the seven other wrecks. The Belgian company selected, Scaldis, which had already conducted pumping operations on the Foucault in 2001, began removal operations in March 2004 from the barge Rambiz (which had also worked on the wreck of the Tricolor). An enormous 850 tonne grapple broke the wreck up into pieces which were left onsite (and identified by GPS) with a view to subsequent removal. The grapple cut, removed and decontaminated, laying the part of the wreck containing the engines and tanks on land. During these operations, bunker residues were released, polluting neighbouring beaches. The selected response means (sorbents, oleophilic rollers) were immediately deployed by the operator. By late 2004, operations were almost complete, except for a few scattered pieces awaiting removal.

Summer 2005 was the first summer in five years without oil pollution on the beaches around Ile de Ré and La Rochelle.


Given the history of the wreck, neither the shipowner (who longer existed) nor war damages could be called upon.

From 2000, the State provided 840,000 Euros of initial funding through the Polmar fund, managed by the French Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, for the decontamination of the site.

Due to the uncertainty over the risks associated with the other neighbouring wrecks, the local authorities and the State rapidly agreed to extend the operation to the entire site.

The CIADT, created after the 1999 storm, then decided to allocate exceptional State credits to the maintenance of the maritime domain. The Poitou-Charentes region, the Charente-Maritime department and the Ile de Ré community decided to make a contribution equalling that of the State, providing 1.6 million Euros in a second round of funding.

The case of the Foucault illustrates and confirms many aspects relating to wrecks. In particular, it is very difficult to determine how much oil remains onboard, to assess the risks of residual pollution, to estimate the cost of decontamination operations, to obtain accurate information on old vessels and to precisely define the technical difficulties associated with such an operation.

Lessons learnt

The Foucault operation is however set apart by its funding. While it is often difficult to ensure that costs are covered by the owner of a potentially polluting wreck that has just sunk and it is practically impossible for an old wreck, funding of the decontamination of the Foucault was organised in just a few weeks, after nearly 60 years on the seafloor.

Several favourable elements go to explain this rapidity.
The wreck was polluting an exceptional site, both in terms of the quality of its environment but also its socio-economic renown. The storm of 26 December 1999 hit the coast of Charente-Maritime hard and no effective preventative action was possible. The Foucault operation offered the opportunity to take control of events and respond to a new threat, this time liable to be prevented. On 28 February, the CIADT decided, from the day after the storm, to set up an unprecedented shoreline rehabilitation programme. This is probably also what motivated the local authorities to make this operation an objective in the State-Region plan and to allocate substantial sums to it, in particular by attributing a large part of the island’s ecotax revenue to it (system under the Barnier law for natural area management).
Information taken from the article by Yves Salaün, manager of the maritime service for Charente Maritime, published in Cedre Information Bulletin issue 21 (2006).

Dossier extrait de l'article d'Yves Salaün, responsable du service maritime de Charentes maritimes, paru dans le bulletin n°21 du Cedre (2006).

Last update on 01/04/2011
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