The damaging effects of oil spills are not just measured in how many gallons of oil involved. That's part of it, but where the oil was spilled, how fast it was cleaned up and how it affected or still affects the surrounding wildlife and communities all have to be considered. If we were to measure the worst oil spills in history just in how many gallons spilled, the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 would not make the list. However, adding in environmental impacts and clean-up efforts, it is still recognized as one of most damaging spills to date. Debate continues over what qualifies as an oil "disaster," but here we show several that would certainly make the list.
On March 18, 1967, the Torrey Canyon's entire cargo of 119,000 tons of Kuwait crude oil was lost after the tanker ran aground on Pollard Rock on the Seven Stones Reef off of Lands End, England. The Royal Navy dispatched a clean-up response team within four hours of the grounding. By March 26, the entire vessel had broken apart, putting an end to any hopes of towing the ship off the reef. The British government eventually decided to bomb it. Various amounts of oil were dispersed, sunk, burned or collected out of the water, but between 13,000 and 20,000 tons of crude oil washed ashore, according to estimates from British officials. Over 100 miles of British coastlines and 60 miles of French coastlines were affected by the oily tide. Clean-up efforts took over two months. It was later determined that the cause of the accident was the captain's negligence.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 1976, the crew of the aging Liberian oil tanker Argo Merchant was not able to keep control in the rough waves and 50-knot winds during a storm off the coast of Nantucket. The ship ran aground among the Nantucket shoals. In an effort to keep the ship afloat, the crew tried using emergency pumps and an Air Deliverable Anti-Pollution Transfer System (ADAPTS), but were unsuccessful. On Dec. 16, the crew was evacuated, and by the next day, the vessel had begun to pivot and buckle under the pounding waves. By Dec. 22, the ship had broken into three pieces, spilling all of its 7.7 million barrels of oil into the ocean. Constant bad weather made salvage attempts very difficult, but environmentalists said damage to local waters were minimal. Strong currents carried the oil away from the Massachusetts shoreline and forced it out to sea.
Stormy weather, rough seas and a faulty piece of steering equipment proved to be a fatal combination for the Amoco Cadiz on March 16, 1978. The enormous vessel carrying almost two million barrels of oil was sailing from the Arabian Gulf to Le Havre, France when it ran aground on Portsall Rocks, three miles off the coast of Brittany, during a severe storm. The entire cargo spilled into the water, creating an oil slick 18 miles wide and 80 miles long, and it wasn't long before the force of the storm caused the ship to break apart. The wreck's isolated location on the rocks didn't help matters at all, and it was two weeks before crews could begin the clean-up process. By the end of it, 100,000 tons of oil and water were collected, but approximately 200 miles of Brittany's coastline and 76 different beach communities were left covered in oil. It took three years for most of the effects from the spill to fade.
Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain
The only thing worse than one oil tanker exploding and sinking while at sea, is two oil tankers colliding at sea. During the rage of a tropical storm in the Caribbean, two giant supertankers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, each carrying over 200,000 tons of crude oil, collided near the islands of Trinidad and Tobago on July 19, 1979. The impact caused enormous, violent fires to break out over both ships. While the Aegean was able to control the flames and be towed back to Trinidad, the Empress didn't fair as well. Four days after the collision, the fire on the Empress was still burning out of control on the ship and in the surrounding waters. On Aug. 3, the tanker sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Between the two ships, 26 crew members died and 280,000 tons of crude oil were spilled into the Caribbean. Fortunately, the spills never reach shorelines. This photo was taken by a rescue worker aboard the TS Berlin.
In the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico, 600 miles south of Texas, the company Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) was drilling a 2-mile-deep oil well called IXTOC I. On June 3, 1979, a loss of drilling mud circulation forced a blowout, causing oil and gas to spew out of the well and ignite. The platform holding the drilling equipment and collecting the oil immediately caught fire and collapsed into the water. Several rescue crews worked for days to try to reach the Blowout Preventer (BOP) -- a large valve used to seal off the surface of a wellhead -- but poor visibility, debris and a long pipeline made it difficult. The IXTOC I well continued to spill oil at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day until it was finally capped on March 23, 1980 – nine months after the initial incident. By the time it was capped, over 140 million gallons of oil had seeped into the bay, making it the second worst oil spill disaster in history.
As the largest oil spill disaster in U.S history, the Exxon Valdez incident continues to leave an incredibly damaging black mark. Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker was traveling outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice, when it struck the Blight Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Out of the 53 million gallons of crude oil onboard, 11 million gallons were lost in the accident. The size of the spill and its remote location in the pristine Alaskan wilderness made clean-up a horrendous task. Ten million birds, whales, otters and other animals were placed immediately at risk and thousands died. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Decades later, the Sound has not completely recovered from the spill and studies completed in 2001 still found oily remnants on some beaches.
Kuwait Oil Fires
Kuwait oil spills during the Gulf War remain the worst examples of eco-terrorism and are by far the worst oil disasters in history. Beginning in January 1991 during the Gulf War, the Iraqi Arny deliberately spilled millions of barrels of oil in the Persian Gulf. Over 500 Kuwaiti tankers, oil fields and refineries were torched, and 3 to 6 million barrels of oil went up in smoke on a daily basis at the peak of the burnings. One 6-million-barrel spill covered over 600 square miles of water and the oil traveled as far as 20 miles away out into the Indian Ocean. The environmental and health risks were enormous, with over 90 million barrels of oil lost. Environmental experts deemed the incident 25 times more toxic than the Exxon Valdez. The United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands committed environmental emergency response teams to the clean-up efforts at the time, and the long-term effects from the spills continue to be studied.
On April 11, 1991, while unloading crude oil onto a floating platform seven miles off the coast of Genoa, Italy, the Haven exploded, burned for three days and then sank, spilling over 42 million gallons of oil in its wake into the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian and French coastlines were polluted for 12 years after the accident. Usually, crude oil from spills floats on water, but sometimes it can harden and sink. While about 70 percent of the oil was burned away in the explosion, oil remnants from this spill were found several years later down to 1,640 feet deep on the ocean floor.
When the huge oil tanker Prestige wrecked about 130 miles of the coast of Galicia, Spain during a storm on Nov. 19, 2002, the resulting effects were far from pretty. The ship broke apart and sank to the bottom as it spilled over 1.5 to 2 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean. Three massive "black tides" soiled 125 miles of Spanish coastline within two weeks after the accident. Robots were eventually discharged to go in and seal the leaks, and the remaining barrels were later retrieved. Considered to be twice as big as the Exxon Valdez accident, the Prestige accident remains the worst oil spill in Spain's history.
Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig
An oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010 caused an offshore oil drilling platform to explode and sink, killing 11 men onboard. USGS officials announced on May 27 that the well has been spewing oil at a rate of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day since the accident and the environmental impact continues to be astronomical. Government scientists also declared that the Deepwater Horizon spill is now the largest oil spill in U.S. history -- with twice as much oil spilled than in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
See photos of the damaging effects the oil has left on the Louisiana shoreline here.
After two failed attempts to cap the leak, BP announced on May 26, 2010 that they were launching a "top kill" maneuver to try to plug the leak. The following day, BP officials said the leak had been successfully stopped with mud, but cautioned it was still too early to declare it a victory. The cost and measure of damages to the Gulf's environment and industries are still unknown.
Follow our continuing coverage of the Gulf oil spill in our Wide Angle here.