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TotalFinaElf refutes charges over 1999 tanker sinking

TotalFinaElf, the French oil group, on Tuesday said it would defend itself vigorously ...

TotalFinaElf, the French oil group, on Tuesday said it would defend itself vigorously against charges of "maritime pollution" and "complicity in endangering the lives of others" relating to the sinking of the Erika oil tanker off the northwest coast of France in December 1999.

The company was summoned late last week to appear before French investigating magistrate Dominique de Talance on November 7 - the first step of legal procedings against the group.

The move follows the submission of an expert report on the accident earlier this month that said the 15-year-old boat should not have been chartered, was overloaded and had dangerously low fuel supplies for itself.

Ms de Talance's summons alleged that Total took insufficient actions to prevent the accident, which led to serious oil pollution on the Brittany coast. It also alleged that Total was exercising an unusual level of control over the ship's movements and deliberately violated safety rules, putting others in danger.

Total said it would co-operate fully with the legal procedings but intended to demonstrate that the company and its employees had not contributed in any way to the allegations brought against it.

"TotalFinaElf believes that it perfectly respected maritime law concerning the management, direction and working of the vessel and that the allegations of complicity in endangering the lives of others and of pollution are not applicable," it said.

The Erika broke up in bad weather on December 11 1999 and sank in 120m of water. The cost to Total of the seven month operation to recover the oil was estimated at E100m ($110m).

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