Worst Oil Spills of All Time

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Worst Oil Spills of All Time

1) Persian Gulf, Kuwait; January 19, 1991; Amount spilled: 380-520 million gallons. The worst oil spill in history wasn't an accident — it was deliberate. During the Gulf War, Iraqi forces attempted to prevent American soldiers from landing by opening valves at an offshore oil terminal and dumping oil from tankers. The oil resulted in a 4-inch thick oil slick that spread across 4,000 square miles in the Persian Gulf. [Source: Mother Nature Network; About.com]

2) BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill; April 22, 2010; Amount spilled: An estimated 206 million gallons The Gulf oil spill is officially the largest accidental spill in world history. It began when an oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf blew out, causing an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people. BP made several unsuccessful attempts to plug the well, but oil flowed — possibly at a rate as high as 2.5 million gallons a day — until the well was capped on July 15, 2010. Oil gushed from the broken well for more than 85 days, oiled 572 miles of Gulf shoreline, and killed hundreds of birds and marine life. The long-term effects of the oil and the 1.82 million gallons of dispersant used remain unknown.

3) Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill; June 3, 1979; Bay of Campeche off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico; Amount spilled: 140 million gallons. A blowout occurred at an offshore oil well that Pemex, a state-owned Mexican oil company, was drilling in the Bay of Campeche, off the coast of Ciudad del Carmen in Mexico. The oil caught fire, the drilling rig collapsed, and oil gushed out of the damaged well at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day for more than nine months before workers succeeded in capping the well and stopping the leak.

“4) Atlantic Empress Oil Spill; July 19, 1979; Off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago; Amount spilled: 90 million gallons. On July 19, 1979, two oil tankers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, collided off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago during a tropical storm. The two ships, which were carrying about 500,000 tons (154 million gallons) of crude oil between them, caught fire on impact. Emergency crews extinguished the fire on the Aegean Captain and towed it to shore, but the fire on the Atlantic Empress continued to burn out of control. The damaged ship started losing oil and continued to leak it into the ocean while it was towed.. The damaged ship lost approximately 90 million gallons of oil — the record for a ship-related oil spill — before it exploded and sank on August 3, 1979 into deep water, where the remaining cargo solidified.

“5) Kolva River Oil Spill in Russia; August 6, 1983; Amount spilled: 84 million gallons. A poorly maintained pipeline caused this massive oil spill. The pipeline had been leaking for eight months, but a dike contained the oil until sudden cold weather caused the dike to collapse. Millions of gallons of accumulated oil were released that spread across 170 acres of bogs and marshland spilled into the Kolva River in the Russian Arctic.

Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill

6) Nowruz Oil Field Spill; February 10, 1983; Persian Gulf, Iran; Amount spilled: 80 million gallons. During the Iran-Iraq war, an oil tanker crashed into an offshore oil platform at the Nowruz Oil Field in the Persian Gulf. Fighting delayed efforts to stop the oil spill, which was dumping about 1,500 barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf each day. In March, Iraqi planes attacked the oil field, the damaged platform collapsed, and the oil slick caught fire. The Iranians finally managed to cap the well in September, an operation that claimed the lives of 11 people.

“7) Castillo de Bellver Oil Spill; August 6, 1983; Saldanha Bay, South Africa; Amount spilled: 79 million gallons. The Castillo de Bellver caught fire about 70 miles north west of Cape Town, and drifted in the open sea until it broke in two 25 miles off the coast. The ship’s stern sank along with the 31 million gallons of oil it was carrying. The bow section was towed and deliberately sunk later in a controlled manner to minimize pollution.

“8) Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill; March 16, 1978; Portsall, France; Amount spilled: 69 million gallons. The oil supertanker Amoco Cadiz was caught in a violent winter storm that damaged its rudder, making it impossible for the crew to steer the ship. The captain sent out a distress signal and several ships responded, but nothing could stop the huge tanker from running aground. On March 17, the ship broke in two and spilled its entire cargo — 69 million gallons of crude oil — into the English Channel. When the massive Amoco Cadiz got into trouble the ship put out a distress call, but while several ships responded, none were able to prevent the ship from running aground. The French later sunk the ship.

The Amaco Cadiz ran aground close to the coast of France , The oil coated 200 miles of coastline, in some places nearly two feet thick. Boom, skimmers, even “honey wagons,” vacuums used to suck up liquid maure, were empleoted, with little effect because if the scale of the disaster.

“9) ABT Summer Oil Spill; May 28, 1991; about 700 nautical miles off the coast of Angola; Amount spilled: 51-81 million gallons. The ABT Summer, an oil tanker carrying 260,000 tons of oil, was en route from Iran to Rotterdam when it exploded and caught fire on May 28, 1991. Five of the 32 crew members on board died as a result of the incident. A large slick covering an area of 80 square miles spread around the tanker and burned for three days before the ship finally sank about 1,300 kilometers (more than 800 miles) off the coast of Angola. Because the accident occurred so far offshore, it was assumed that high seas would disperse the oil spill naturally. As a result, not much was done to clean up the oil. Efforts to locate the wreckage have been unsuccessful.

“10) M/T Haven Tanker Oil Spill; April 11, 1991; Genoa, Italy; Amount spilled: 45 million gallons. On April 11, 1991, the M/T Haven was unloading a cargo of 230,000 tons of crude oil at the Multedo platform, about seven miles off the coast of Genoa, Italy. When something went wrong during a routine operation, the ship exploded and caught fire, killing six people and spilling oil into the Mediterranean Sea. Italian authorities attempted to tow the tanker closer to shore, to reduce the coastal area affected by the oil spill and to improve access to the wreck, but the ship broke in two and sank. For the next 12 years, the ship continued to pollute the Mediterranean coasts of Italy and France. The source of the explosion was thought to be the ship’s poor state of repair — supposedly the Haven was scrapped after being hit by a missile during the Iran-Iraq War, but was put back into operation.

Amaco Cadiz

“11) Odyssey Oil Spill; November 10, 1988; Off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada; Amount spilled: 40.7 million gallons. Two oil spills that occurred hundreds of miles off the east coast of Canada in autumn 1988 are often mistaken for each other. In September 1988, the Ocean Odyssey, an American-owned offshore drilling rig, exploded and dumped more than a million barrels (about 43 million gallons) of oil into the North Atlantic. One person was killed; 66 others were rescued. In November 2008, the Odyssey, a British-owned oil tanker, broke in two, caught fire and sank in heavy seas about 900 miles east of Newfoundland, spilling about a million barrels of oil. All 27 crew members were missing and presumed dead.

“12) The Sea Star Oil Spill; December 19, 1972; Gulf of Oman; Amount spilled: 35.3 million gallons. The South Korean supertanker, Sea Star, collided with a Brazilian tanker, the Horta Barbosa, off the coast of Oman. The vessels caught fire after the collision and the crew abandoned ship. Although the Horta Barbosa was extinguished in a day, the Sea Star sank into the Gulf on Dec. 24 following several explosions.

13) The Torrey Canyon Oil Spill; March 18, 1967; Scilly Isles, UK; Amount spilled: 25-36 million gallons. The Torrey Canyon was one of the first big supertankers, and it was also the source of one of the first major oil spills. Although the ship was originally built to carry 60,000 tons, it was enlarged to a 120,000-ton capacity, and that’s the amount the ship was carrying when it hit a reef off the coast of Cornwall. The spill created an oil slick measuring 270 square miles, contaminating 180 miles of coastland. More than 15,000 sea birds and enormous numbers of aquatic animals were killed before the spill was finally contained.

“The Torrey Canyon spill spread in two main slicks: one that head for France and the other towards Cornwall. Solvent-based cleaning agents and industrial detergents used by Royal Navy vessels to try to disperse the oil didn't work very well and caused more environmental damage than the oil itself. It was then decided to set fire to the ocean and burn away the oil by dropping bombs made of napalm, sodium chlorate and aviation fuel. Many of the bombs which missed their target and the tactic also proved to be largely ineffective as did French strategy of dumping 3,000 tons of chalk, containing stearic acid to sink or disperse the oil.

“Worst Oil Spill on Land. Lakeview Gusher, March 1910-September 1911, Kern Country, California, Oil Spilled: 378 million gallons. The worst accidential oil spill in U.S. and world history occurred in 1910, when a crew drilling for oil beneath California scrubland tapped into a high-pressure reservoir 2,200 feet below the surface. The resulting gusher destroyed the wooden derrick and cause a crater so large that no one could get close enough to make a serious attempt at stopping the geyser of oil that continued uncontrolled for approximately 18 months.

1991 Oil Spill in the Persian Gulf

In January 1991 an estimated 6-8 million barrels (380-520 million gallons) of oil was spilled after Saddam order oil pumped into the Persian Gulf. It was the largest oil spill of all time. No. 2 was a spill in Gulf of Mexico off Mexico from a well in 1979. The Persian Gulf spill was 25 times larger than Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

“The Iraqis deliberately blasted pipelines and storage facilities and emptied full tankers. Most of the oil came from a 26-inch pipeline fed by at least 643 oil wells at the terminal on Sea Island off the coast of Iraq in the Persian Gulf. Oil flowed unimpeded for several days, producing a spill that covered 600 square miles of sea surface and tarred 300 miles of coastline, mostly in Saudi Arabia. Oil also flowed from oil tanks raptured in the Battle fro Al Khafji.

“As bad as things they could have been worse if not for the work of four employees of the Kuwait Oil Company at Mina Ahamdi. One of them told National Geographic: “We worked at night because the Iraqis had spies. A 48-inch pipe carried oil from storage tanks down to Sea Island. This tanks held 8.5 million barrels that the Iraqis intended to release into the gulf. We secretly closed a valve the Iraqis didn’t know about and, to fool them, changed the valve indicator to “open.” When they dynamited Sea Island to release the main spill, our valve held back those million of barrels in the storage tanks.” [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

Battling the Oil Spill in the Persian Gulf

Describing the slick from the 1991 Persian Gulf spill he saw from a helicopter, Thomas Canby wrote in National Geographic: “Offshore, an immense film of oil called sheen polished the sea mirrored the somber smoke clouds from the Kuwaiti oil fires...Floating in the sheen were chocolate mats known as mousse — older oil that had combined with water to form an emulsion...Sculptured shores were hideously stained, as if charred by fire. Here the intertidal zone was a black band a mile wide; pools of oil waited for the next tide to smear it on more wildlife habitat.” [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

“About half the oil evaporated and the rest was luckily held in place by unreasonably mild winds. Saudi Aramco, worried about damage to its tanker terminals, refineries and desalinization plants on the coast, set up 25 miles of booms and mobilized 21 oil-recovery vessels.

“Other oil companies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states pitched in. They were aided by experts from the United States, Europe and Japan. The United States Coast Guard provided radar-surveillance planes to plot the course of the spill. Environmental and government groups assisted in helping the wildlife by cleaning birds, protecting wildlife habitats and using oil-eating microbes to cleanse wetlands. A British Royal Marines unit provided offered Chinook helicopters used to cleans four turtle nesting sites..

“Altogether about two million barrels of oil was collected and dumped in pits in the desert where some was reclaimed. Most of it was taken from the surface of the water with skimmers and deposited on the land with vacuum trucks.

Setting Kuwait’s Oil Wells on Fire

At the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 the Iraqis blew up and set on fire 741 oil wells in Kuwait, creating an ecological disaster and the world’s largest oil spill. Most of the wells were in the Great Burgan Oil Field. The first fires were set about ten days before the end of the war. Many of them of them were set fire as Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwait. [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

“An employee of the Kuwait Oil Company told National Geographic, “Saddam Hussein sent down oil men from Iraq, and they studied our operation. If you didn’t cooperate, they would kill you. A month before the disaster they kicked us out of the control room, where I worked...On Sunday, February 17, they began to fire the wells. They put dynamite in each, put a sandbag on each charge to direct the blast downward, and detonated it with an electric charge. Every 10 to 15 minutes they fired another well — boom! Soon they sky was full of fire and smoke.”

Kuwaiti oil field on fire

“Many wells were in Kuwait’s Ahmadi oil field. Describing the scene there near a farm Thomas Canby wrote in National Geographic: “Fire of dynamited wellheads, roaring like jet engines, rage on every side...Sixty-eight fountains of fire hurl smoke into the black canopy overhead...In this dark and surrealistic landscape a drizzle of soot and oil flashes in our headlights...The smoke cloud blocks the midmorning sun, and the fouled desert air is chill.”

“Not all the wells caught fire. Some spurted geysers of gray-brown crude oil that shot up 50 to 60 feet in the air and produced massive oil lakes. Describing a gushing oil well, Sylvia Earle wrote in National Geographic: “A jet or raw, coffee-colored oil roared skyward, swept by hot, brisk wind into a silken mist. The mist glistened against an August sky dark with smoke...I was...near enough to feel the roar, smell the sharp aroma, and be splattered with clinging oil droplets.”

“The oil gushed out at pressures as high as 15,000 pounds per square inch and burned at temperatures of 2000̊F, which is hot enough to turn sand to glass and burn a man's skin 100 feet away. Canby wrote: “Some of the fires leap 200 feet in the air. Twisting and writhing in the wind, they resemble flaming tornados tethered to their wellheads...Grasses and trees glisten black, oily to the touch...A horse. Once it was a fine white Arabian mare. Now it is a gaunt ghost, pitiably stained and matted with oil.”

Ecological Damage, Health Problems and Air Pollution from the Burning Oil Wells in Kuwait

As much as 6 million barrels a day — 10 percent of the world’s output — was burned or poured out of the wells everyday. More than 400 ponds and lakes of oil and sludge were formed from perhaps as much as a billion barrels of oil that spilled across the landscape. The lakes swallowed up plant and animal life, gave off horrid smells, and spoiled valuable farmland. Some oil lakes were more than a mile long and a yard deep. One oil lake in southern Kuwait contained nine times the oil that was spilled in Exxon Valdez disaster. [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

“The environmental damage in Kuwait alone was estimated at $18 billion. Falling oil and soot bonded with the sand and covered the desert with a brittle crust. Migrating birds mistook the oil for water and got gook all over their feathers when the landed. Unable to fly out they died. There were concerns about: 1) oil seeping into the ground threatening groundwater; 2) the fallout of toxic metals on the land; and 3) the churning of the desert soil by heavy armor and machinery damaging the fragile desert ecosystem. Even areas of the desert that looked undisturbed were affected. There was an increase in the numbers of dunes, caused as plants died and sand was released to the wind.

Kuwaiti firefighters fight to secure a burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields

“Black oily smoke and half a million tons of aerial pollutants, including huge amounts of sulfur dioxide (a component of acid rain) filled the air. The fire produced plumes of varying colors, revealing the different chemical mixes of the burned oil, and released nearly half a billion tons of carbon dioxide, more than half of all the power plants in the United States.

“Oil and oil mist poisoned trees and sheep, contaminated water supplies, entered the lungs of people and wild animals, made the farm land unworkable and caused food shortages in some places. Farm animals and crops suffered. The oil and soot entered the milk of cows and the wool of sheep, requiring special processing to remove. Some of the oil that didn’t burn became air-borne along with soot and pollutants. Oily mist was carried great distances by winds. Oil, soot and acid rain fell up to 2,000 kilometers from the oil fires. Black rains fell in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Skiers in Kashmir in the Himalayas witnessed black snow.

“Kuwaitis suffered from a number of health problems related to breathing the oil, soot and chemicals. Hospitals were flooded with people with asthma, bronchial problems, severe coughing and upper throat infections. There were worries about high cancer rates down the road. In a study released in 2004, a committee of the Institute of Medicine reported that there was “sufficient evidence” that exposure to oil well fires, exhausts and other sources “could be associated with with lung cancer for some veterans.”

Extinguishing and Capping Burning Kuwaiti Oil Wells

Most of the burning oil facilities had been mined by the Iraqis so before firefighter and capping crews could even get near the fires the mines had to be removed. Some of the fires were put out with heavy doses of foam. Some were doused with water. Sometimes it took a million liters of water to put out a single fire. Other were put out witj pressure hoses that shot out sand and water that separated the oil from the flames. Most were put out with explosives that stop fires by momentarily starving them of oxygen. [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

“Once a fire was out then it could be approached to cap. Most of the oil wells were capped with a devise called a stinger, a tapered, hollow metal rod attached to crane arm that is maneuvered into place with a bulldozer and jammed down the well. Specially-prepared “drilling mud” was pumped through the rod down the pipe to permanently block the flow.

“The work was often done by rugged men who got as close as they could to the burning well, with their explosives, protected from the fires by only a shield of sheet metal with metal handles. American and Canadian specialist sometime put on 12-hour shifts, ending the day dazed and drenched i

“If the cappers were unable to get a good seal they sometimes set a well on fire again to reduce pollution. One oil man told AP, “The fire is the least of our problems. We’ve gt to get the genie back in the bottle. In many cased it was cheaper to drill a new well that repair the old one. The oil lakes were initially left alone. Reprocessing the oil was possible but difficult and was not given a high priority.

“It cost $40 billion and eight months to control the fires and cap the wells. The process was delayed by the sheer magnitude of the job and by mines, bureaucracy and the difficulty and expense of flying and shipping in all the heavy equipment they needed. Much of the work was done by Boots & Coots, a Texas company founded by two legendary oilmen Boots Hansen and Boots Matthews.

Clean Up Efforts and Ecological Impact of the Oil Dumped in the Persian Gulf

The ecological impact of the oil spill included tarred beaches, some which of which looked like asphalt highways. There were 25,000 dead birds and thousands of dead crabs and fish. Rare dugongs were threatened. There was some damage to fisheries that may take 200 years to recover. [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, August 1991]

“Much of the oil that didn’t evaporate or wasn’t recovered formed into a mousse that sunk to the bottom of the sea. Sea grasses seemed little effected but there were lots of dead crabs, mollusks and other creatures. Years later fishermen said they caught fewer fish and saw fewer numbers of birds. Beaches were strewn with pebble-like balls of oil and sand. Veins of oil could be found deep in the sand. Clean up of the beaches and areas around the oil wells was slowed by the presence of mines and barbed wire. People were afraid of getting their legs blow off if they participated in a clean up effort.

“Over time the oil ponds and lakes dried into asphalt-like beds. The Kuwait Oil Company managed to vacuum about 20 million gallons of oil from the lakes and ponds. Clean up coordinators contemplated burning the ponds, burying the, digging them up or depositing chemical on them to neutralize the chemicals.

“Environmentalist have complained that more should have been done. Defenders of the government said they had to deal with a lot of matters such as putting out the firs, getting water and electricity infrastructure up and running, and rebuilding the country a war.

“Five years of natural cleansing from tides, currents and weather cleaned up much of the Persian Gulf pollution. Environmentalists by that time were more concerned about day yo day leakages and dirty ballast from tankers.

Ixtoc I Oil Spill

Ixtoc I was an exploratory oil well being drilled by the semi-submersible drilling rig Sedco 135-F in the Bay of Campeche of the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 kilometers northwest of Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche in waters 50 m (160 ft) deep. On 3 June 1979, the well suffered a blowout resulting in one of largest oil spills in history. Oil flowed out from June , 1979 to March 23, 1980. About 3,000,000 barrels (480,000 government ) of oil was released. At its height the slick covered an area of 2,800 square kilometers (1,100 square miles). A total of 261 kilometers (162 miles) of coastline was affected. Experts and divers including Red Adair were brought in to contain and cap the oil well. It was finally capped nearly 10 months after the blowout. [Source: Wikipedia]

“According to to Wikipedia: Mexico's government-owned oil company Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) was drilling a 3 km (1.9 mi) deep oil well when the drilling rig Sedco 135F lost drilling mud circulation. In modern rotary drilling, mud is circulated down the drill pipe and back up the well bore to the surface. The goal is to equalize the pressure through the shaft and to monitor the returning mud for gas. Without the counter-pressure provided by the circulating mud, the pressure in the formation allowed oil to fill the well column, blowing out the well. The oil caught fire, and Sedco 135F burned and collapsed into the sea.

“At the time of the accident Sedco 135F was drilling at a depth of about 3,600 metres (11,800 ft) below the seafloor. The day before Ixtoc suffered the blowout and resulting fire that caused her to sink, the drill bit hit a region of soft strata. Subsequently, the circulation of drilling mud was lost resulting in a loss of hydrostatic pressure. Rather than returning to the surface, the drilling mud was escaping into fractures that had formed in the rock at the bottom of the hole. Pemex officials decided to remove the bit, run the drill pipe back into the hole and pump materials down this open-ended drill pipe in an effort to seal off the fractures that were causing the loss of circulation.

“During the removal of the pipe on Sedco 135F, the drilling mud suddenly began to flow up towards the surface; by removing the drill-string the well was swabbed leading to a kick. Normally, this flow can be stopped by activating shear rams contained in the blowout preventer (BOP). These rams are designed to sever and seal off the well on the ocean floor; however in this case the drill collars had been brought in line with the BOP and the BOP rams were not able to sever the thick steel walls of the drill collars leading to a catastrophic blowout. The drilling mud was followed by a large quantity of oil and gas at an increasing flow rate. The oil and gas fumes exploded on contact with the operating pump motors, starting a fire which led to the collapse of the Sedco 135F drilling tower. The collapse caused damage to underlying well structures. The damage to the well structures led to the release of significant quantities of oil into the Gulf.

“In the initial stages of the spill, an estimated 30,000 barrels (5,000 m3) of oil per day were flowing from the well. In July 1979, the pumping of mud into the well reduced the flow to 20,000 barrels (3,000 m3) per day, and early in August the pumping of nearly 100,000 steel, iron, and lead balls into the well reduced the flow to 10,000 barrels (2,000 m3) per day. Pemex claimed that half of the released oil burned when it reached the surface, a third of it evaporated, and the rest was contained or dispersed. Mexican authorities also drilled two relief wells into the main well to lower the pressure of the blowout, however the oil continued to flow for three months following the completion of the first relief well.

“Pemex contracted Conair Aviation to spray the chemical dispersant Corexit 9527 on the oil. A total of 493 aerial missions were flown, treating 1,100 square miles (2,800 km2) of oil slick. In Texas, an emphasis was placed on coastal countermeasures protecting the bays and lagoons formed by the barrier islands. Ultimately, 71,500 barrels (11,000 m3) of oil impacted 162 miles (260 km) of U.S. beaches, and over 10,000 cubic yards (8,000 m3) of oiled material were removed.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill took place just after midnight on March 24, 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, a pristine area that is home to many species of fish, birds and marine mammals. When the supertanker hit a reef off the Alaskan coast, 11 of its cargo tanks ruptured, dumping 10.8 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound. But the spill could have been much worse — the Valdez was carrying 53 million gallons. The oil spill eventually covered 11,000 square miles of ocean, extended 470 miles southwest, and coated 1,300 miles of coastline. [Source: Mother Nature Network; About.com]

“In terms of sheer volume, the Exxon Valdez spill ranks as the 36th worst oil spill in history; however, the spill was far from small. Despite attempts to use dispersing agents and oil skimming ships, oil washed onto 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline. Today, oil remains a few inches below the surface on many of Alaska’s beaches.

Responders found carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters, which was considered to be a fraction of the animal death toll because carcasses typically sink to the seabed. It’s estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales died along with billions of salmon and herring eggs. The repaired Exxon Valdez was renamed the SeaRiver Mediterranean, and, although it is banned from Alaskan waters, the tanker still carries oil around the world.

“The Exxon Valdez left the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska at 9:12 p.m., March 23, 1989. A pilot named William Murphy guided the huge ship through the Valdez Narrows, with Captain Joe Hazelwood looking on and Helmsman Harry Claar at the wheel. After the Exxon Valdez cleared the Valdez Narrows, Murphy left the ship. When the Exxon Valdez encountered icebergs in the shipping lanes, Hazelwood ordered Claar to take the ship out of the shipping lanes to avoid them.He then placed Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of the wheelhouse and ordered him to guide the tanker back into the shipping lanes when the ship reached a certain point. At the same time, Helmsman Robert Kagan replaced Claar at the wheel. For some reason, still unknown, Cousins and Kagan failed to turn back into the shipping lanes at the specified point and the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m., March 24, 1989. Captain Hazelwood was in his quarters when the accident occurred. Some reports say that he was under the influence of alcohol at the time.

“The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Exxon Valdez oil spill and determined five probable causes of the accident: 1) The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue and excessive workload; 2) the master failed to provide a proper navigation watch, possibly due to impairment from alcohol; 3) Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for the Exxon Valdez; 4) the U.S. Coast Guard failed to provide an effective vessel traffic system; and effective pilot and escort services were lacking.

Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Cleanup efforts washed away much of the visible damage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill within the first year, but the environmental effects of the spill are still being felt. In the years since the accident, scientists have noted higher death rates among sea otters and some other species affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill and stunted growth or other damage among others. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is considered one of the worst human-caused marine environmental disasters ever to occur. Although there have been larger oil spills in various parts of the world, few have caused the kind of widespread and lasting environmental damage that characterizes the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This is partly due to the nature of Prince William Sound as critical habitat for many different wildlife species, and partly due to the difficulty of deploying equipment and carrying out response plans in such a remote location. [Source: Mother Nature Network; About.com; Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, March 14, 2011]

“Most of the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez was in the water within six hours after the ship hit Bligh Reef, and for the first two days it remained concentrated in a large but potentially manageable area near Bligh Island. On March 26, two days after the spill, a storm with winds of more than 70 mph swept through Prince William Sound and pushed the oil out to sea. By March 30, the oil stretched 90 miles beyond the spill site. Another complicating factor was that the spring tidal fluctuations at that time of year were nearly 18 feet, which carried the oil farther onto land than normal wave action would have done.

“Clean up efforts were hampered by the rocky topography of the shoreline, the harsh weather, which made clean up in the winter next to impossible, and a lack of authorty and cooperation in the clean up effort that was due in part to distrust between Exxon and government authorities. More than 11,000 people particpated in the clean up. Some of the cleanup efforts following the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused more harm than good. To get at oil that had collected in rocky coves, rescue workers sprayed hot water from high-pressure hoses to displace it. Unfortunately, that method also destroyed tiny organisms that were either essential components in the food chain or could have accelerated the biodegradation of the oil.

“In early 2007, more than 26,000 gallons of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill remained trapped in the sand along the Alaska shoreline, according to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Scientists involved in the study determined that this residual oil was declining at a rate of less than 4 percent annually.

“The Exxon Valdez oil spill led to many lawsuits. In 1994, an Alaska jury ordered ExxonMobil to pay $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. In 2006, an appeals court reduced punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill to $2.5 billion, half the original amount. Two years later, in June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court cut the punitive damages even more, to $507.5 million. The new figure represented about 12 hours of revenue for the giant oil company at the time of the ruling. In the end Exxon paid $4.3 billion in clean up and legal costs.

Deepwater Horizon burning

BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

An explosion on the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the largest accidental spill in world history. Before a cap was finally placed on the leaking Macondo well 85 days after the explosion more than 600,000 tons. (4.9 million barrels; 210,000,000 gallons; 780,000 cubic meters) of oil was released. [Source: Washington Post; Mother Nature Network; About.com; Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker, March 14, 2011]

“The BP Gulf of Mexico oil began on April 22, 2010; when an oil well a mile below the surface of the Gulf blew out, causing an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 people. Initially very little oil was released into the Gulf. While the Deepwater Horizon was still afloat the oil and gas that spewed into the rig were incinerated. But the fires ultimately began melting the structure itself, causing the whole rig to sink to the bottom. When that happened so much sediment was kicked up it was difficult to tell how much oil was spewing from the well. Bad weather slowed the efforts to grasp the extent of the calamity. It was only when video of wellhead became widely released that the extent of the oil spill became apparent.

“At first it was difficult to gage how much oil was coming out of the well. Initially BP said a thousand barrels a day were coming out. Other said it was more than that, Some said it was like an Exxon Valdez every couple of days. At this stage there were suggestiosn of setting the spill ablaze, a tact which had wroked well in smaller spills. But thsi deais was dropped when it was learned that the oil was relatively light and was naturally dispersing. Within a few weeks the spill was not a sibe slick but made yp of hundreds of thousands of patches.

“BP made several unsuccessful attempts to plug the well, but oil flowed — possibly at a rate as high as 2.5 million gallons a day — until the well was capped on July 15, 2010. Oil gushed from the broken well for more than 85 days, oiled 572 miles of Gulf shoreline, and killed hundreds of birds and marine life. The long-term effects of the oil and the 1.82 million gallons of dispersant used remain unknown.

“BP was heavily criticized for not having been more careful. The deposit that was being tapped was 40 percent gas, making the possibility of a blow out a real possibility, oceanographer Samantha Joye, told the New York Times. Early unsuccessful attempts to cap the well included: 1) the failure of robotic submarines to activate the blowout preventer; 2) the placement of a 98,-ton, four-story-high containment dome over the main leak, which was clogged by crystalized gas before it could capture oil; 3) an unsuccessful attempt to perform a Top Kill maneuver to smother the leak with mud resulted only in the well shooting out mud; 4) a containment cap was placed in the well but it didn’t fit tightly enough and oil spewed out from under it.

“In late May an insertion tube was placed in the leaking pipe, siphoning off a small portion of the oil. In July the flow was contained when the Q4000 rig siphoned off significant amounts of oil with a line between the blowout preventer and the surface. Oil was burned off at the surface. In early Augsut a more tight-fitting cap was successfully placed on the blowout preventer, stopping oil from flowing into the gulf. In early September the crisis was brought to an end with a static kill maneuver. With the cap restraining the flow heavy mud was pumped down into the well witj the Q400 rig, pushing back the oil and gas into the reservoir. Cement was used to seal the well permanently.

The disaster was a blow to oil industry which had vastly improved it record avoiding oil spills. Matt Rideley wrote in The Times: The number and collective size of oil spills (over 7,000 tonnes) has declined in each of the last four decades, from 25 large spills and over 250,000 tonnes a year in 1970-1979 to three spills and about 20,000 tonnes a year in 2000-2009: that is a drop of more than 90 percent.”

Books: “In Too Deep, BP and the Drilling Race That Took It Down” by Anthony Reed and Alison Fitzgerald (Bloomberg, 2011); “Blowout in the Gulf, The BP Oil Spill and the Future of Energy in America” by William Freudenburg and Robert Graming (MIT, 2011); “Disaster on the Horizon, High Stakes, High Risks and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout” by Bob Cavner and Chelsea Green (Paperback, 2011).

Deepwater Horizon Burning

Blame for the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

The disaster was supposed to have been prevented bu a 300-ton devise called a blowout preventer that are designed to shut in oil in the vent of an explosion or major well-control problem in the case of the BP case, the valves did not stay closed like they were supposed to, allowing to spew out into the sea.

“A U.S. government report issued in September 2011, more than a year after the blowout, said BP was solely to blame for 21 of 35 contributing causes to the Macondo well blow-out that led to the leak, and shared blame for eight more. "BP's cost or time saving decisions without considering contingencies and mitigation were contributing causes of the Macondo blowout," the report said.

“BP failed to communicate decisions regarding the cementing that increased operational risks to Transocean, the contractor that owned and operated Deepwater Horizon, according to the report. The cement's failure to maintain the integrity of the well was the central cause of the blowout. BP worked with Halliburton to design the cement job. Because the well was over budget, "BP sought to minimize these losses by reducing the volume of cement it pumped into the well" and a key analysis recommended by a Halliburton engineer was skipped, according to the report. Halliburton -- which was responsible for cementing -- Transocean said the report "finally puts to rest all previous allegations that improper maintenance of the blowout preventer contributed to the tragedy".

“Halliburton was responsible for cementing There were allegations that improper maintenance of the blowout preventer by Switzerland-based Transocean contributed to the tragedy.

“In March 2012, Bloomberg reported: “BP said it reached a $7.8 billion settlement with businesses and individuals over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, removing one of three major litigation fronts facing the company over the biggest offshore spill in U.S. history. BP said in a statement that the settlement will be paid out of a $20 billion trust set up to compensate spill victims. [Source: Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Jef Feeley and Edvard Pettersson, Bloomberg, - March 3, 2012]

BP said in its statement that the proposed settlement won’t increase the $37.2 billion charge it previously recorded in its financial statements for spill costs. That figure includes the $20 billion BP has set aside for the trust fund, which will be used to pay spill damage claims and medical injury claims as well as “state and local government claims, state and local response costs, natural resources damages and related claims,” BP said. So far, BP says it has spent more than $22 billion on the spill, which breaks down to $8.1 billion to individuals, businesses and government entities and $14 billion on operational response.

“BP has also been in settlement talks with the federal government and the partner companies that also face liability for the spill. The U.S. Clean Water Act lets the U.S. seek fines of as much as $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled as a result of simple negligence, often described as a failure to exercise ordinary care. The maximum increases to $4,300 a barrel for gross negligence, or a conscious act or omission, leaving BP liable for as much as $17.6 billion in fines. BP set aside $3.5 billion to pay Clean Water Act fines based on its own lower estimate of barrels spilled and no finding of gross negligence.

What Happened to the Oil BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Brian Vastag wrote in the Washington Post: “According to the government’s “oil budget,” released by NOAA in November, a quarter of the oil evaporated or dissolved into the water. Another 13 percent was blown into fine droplets as it rushed from the broken riser pipe, the report says. Much of this dispersed oil mixed with natural gas from the well and remained deep in the gulf as a thin plume that drifted for months. [Source: Brian Vastag, Washington Post, April 17, 2011]

“According to the NOAA “oil budget”: “The vast majority of the oil from the BP oil spill has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered from the wellhead or dispersed much of which is in the process of being degraded. A significant amount of this is the direct result of the robust federal response efforts. A third (33 percent) of the total amount of oil released in the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill was captured or mitigated by the Unified Command recovery operations, including burning, skimming, chemical dispersion and direct recovery from the wellhead, according to a federal science report released today.

“An additional 25 percent of the total oil naturally evaporated or dissolved, and 16 percent was dispersed naturally into microscopic droplets. The residual amount, just over one quarter (26 percent), is either on or just below the surface as residue and weathered tarballs, has washed ashore or been collected from the shore, or is buried in sand and sediments. Dispersed and residual oil remain in the system until they degrade through a number of natural processes. Early indications were that the oil was degrading quickly. These estimates were derived by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of the Interior (DOI), who jointly developed what is known as an Oil Budget Calculator, to provide measurements and best estimates of what happened to the spilled oil.

Brian Vastag wrote in the Washington Post: “The chemical dispersant Corexit 9500 sprayed at the wellhead dispersed another 16 percent into fine droplets, which joined the plume, the report says. Natural oil-munching bacteria then swarmed the plumes, according to research published in the journal Science in August by Terry Hazen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Three weeks after the well was capped in July, Hazen and his crew no longer found signs of deep oil or gas as they crisscrossed the gulf. “It disappeared at a much faster rate than anyone anticipated,” Lubchenco said. [Source: Brian Vastag, Washington Post, April 17, 2011]

“About 17 percent of the total Unified Command, led by the U.S. Coast Guard, dispensed with was got sucked into the “top hat” lowered onto the broken riser pipe or was otherwise directly recovered, loaded onto tankers and moved to refineries. Flaring at the surface burned another 5 percent. Prolonged efforts to skim the oil — essentially slurping up slicks on the open ocean — proved largely ineffective, said Stephen Da Ponte, a lawyer in the Coast Guard’s Office of Maritime and International Law. Only 3 percent of the oil was skimmed. And then there’s the “residual” oil — the unaccounted-for stuff. The oil budget puts it at between 11 percent and 30 percent of the total, tens of millions of gallons.

Environmental Impact of the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

More than 1 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit 9527 was sprayed on patches of oil in the Gulf. Brian Vastag wrote in the Washington Post: “A handful of independent scientists report that many things aren’t quite right in the gulf. More than 100 square miles of delicate marshland looks sick, they say. The immune systems of certain fishes appear compromised, seaweed and algae production has slowed in places, and a new layer of muck coats the sea bottom near the wellhead. At least a few formerly vibrant deep-sea communities of corals, sea stars and worms now lie dead. Also dead: untold numbers of fish and crustaceans, thousands of birds, and hundreds of sea turtles and dolphins. [Source: Brian Vastag, Washington Post, April 17, 2011]

“Even so “ardent environmentalists and cautious government officials agree on one point: The direst predictions of catastrophe sounded during the blowout have not come to pass. “It’s not as bad as it might have been, but the jury is still out in terms of the full impact of the spill on the health of the gulf,” Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is heavily involved in documenting the damage, told the Washington Post.

Image Sources: U.S. Department of Energy; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, U.S. Department of Energy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.


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