Oil-damaged Breton beaches face trial by towel

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The Independent Online

A dozen beaches on the Atlantic coast of France will be submitted to a bizarre and rigorous test by white towels over the next few days.

A dozen beaches on the Atlantic coast of France will be submitted to a bizarre and rigorous test by white towels over the next few days.

The London-based agency that awards "blue flags" of cleanliness to the beaches of Europe will be searching for signs of oil from the Erika spill last December.

A white towel will be strapped to a heavy roller and trundled up and down the sand. Alternatively, an inspector will place a white towel on the beach and sit or lie on it, in six different locations. Inspectors may also build sand castles, to test whether there is child-threatening oil lurking below the surface.

If an oil stain roughly the size of a 10p or one franc coin appears on the towel, the beach will fail its cleanliness test.

Whatever the outcome, there will be a dearth of blue flags this year on the 150 miles of coast between Lorient and La Rochelle that were stricken by the wreck of the Erika just before Christmas. Last year 43 out of the 53 communities on this stretch of coastline - including Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, the setting for Monsieur Hulot's Holiday - received the blue symbol of approval from the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe.

This year 13 communities did not even bother to ask for an inspection. Of the rest, 28 failed at the first hurdle, on the basis of official information supplied to the foundation or after a preliminary investigation. Only 12 survived to undergo the ultimate test by white towels. The results will be announced next week and until then the names of both the failed and the successful towns and beaches will be kept secret.

The blue flag-white towel exercise - dismissed as "cruel and pointless" by some local politicians - is proving a considerable embarrassment for the French government.

A £10m television and newspaper advertising campaign - principally aimed at tourists from France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands - implies that the southern Breton and Biscay coast beaches will be clean for the summer holidays. "Charente-Maritime [the area around La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré] is as beautiful as ever," claims one slogan. "Breathe, you're in France-Atlantique," says another.

Although the sandy beaches have been scrubbed and combed every day since the Erika foundered on 12 December, small pellets of oil still keep coming ashore in heavy weather or high tides.

An ambitious new operation was launched this week to pump out of the sunken ship the remaining 12,000 tons of heavy heating oil. The Erika lies 50 miles off the Breton coast. Local politicians fear that the oil still arriving on the beaches comes from large deposits stuck to the seabed or from other vessels whose crew have, cynically, cleaned their tanks in the vicinity of the wreck.

Philippe Boénec, mayor of Pornic, just south of the mouth of the Loire, called for the whole of the French coastline to withdraw from the blue flag competition this year, in "solidarity" with the afflicted seaside communities. His appeal was rejected, on the basis that foreign tourists might assume that all French beaches had been soiled. (Beaches north of Lorient and south of the Ile d'Oléron were not touched by the spill.) Seaside resorts in the stricken area are resigned to a disastrous season.

The weakness of the euro means the rest of France will have a boom year for foreign tourism. Bookings in southern Brittany and the Biscay coast are reported to be down by between 15 and 50 per cent.