1967 – The Torrey Canyon oil spill

At its time, the worst ever oil spill, the wreck of the Torrey Canyon spilled more than 32 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Atlantic off Cornwall. The ship had collided with Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones reef between the Cornish mainland and the Isles of Scilly as a result of human errors.

The ship broke up while a refloating was being attempted, leading to the death of one of the workers. In the weeks that followed, the slick from the spill spread to coasts of the United Kingdom, France, Spain and assorted Channel Islands, especially Guernsey. The wreck was bombed, both to set the oil ablaze (and thus remove it from the ocean) and destroy the ship (which now posed a hazard to navigation). Its remains now lie in 30 metres of water off the coast of Cornwall.

Referenced in:
Torrey Canyon — Serge Gainsbourg

1978 – The Amoco Cadiz oil spill

The Amoco Cadiz was a tanker of the VLCC (very large crude carrier) class, which ran aground on Portsall Rocks, off the coast of Brittany, France, in the early hours of March 16, 1978 after encountering Force 10 winds and high seas in the English Channel. At the time, the ship was carrying a quantity of over 1.6 million barrels of oil (and a barrel is 42 US gallons), all of which spilled out into the ocean as the storm battered the Cadiz so hard that she broke into three pieces. There was no loss of human life during the ship’s demise, but the oil spill was catastrophic.

The toll of the oil on the local marine life – and local in this case means in the oceans off more than 200 miles of Atlantic coastline – was enormous. More than 20,000 seabirds and over a million molluscs and fish were recorded as killed (and these are only the bodies that washed up on the shores somewhere – many more would not have made it that far). In addition, the physical damage to beaches and coasts was extreme, while the isolated location and bad weather made it the spill hard to clean up before more damage was done. In some of the affected locations, the impact of the spill is still plainly visible today, nearly forty years later.

Referenced in:
Amoco Cadiz — Speedy J
The Oil Song 2010 — Steve Forbert

1993 – The MV Braer runs aground in the Shetlands

Two days prior to the spill, the MV Braer had suffered contamination of its fuel by sea water after cracks in the fuel lines had former. In the early morning of January 5, the contamination became so great that the engine could no longer function. Dead in the water, the 242 metre long oil tanker, laden with 85,000 tonnes of Gulfaks crude oil, was at the mercy of the elements. And the elements were not feeling merciful.

The winds were blowing between Force 10 and 11 that night (a range from 89-117 kmh, or 55-73 mph), driving the now uncontrollable tanker towards the rocks of Sumbergh Heads. In the event, she ran aground at Garths Ness, and although a great amount of oil leaked out, the combination of the violence of the storm and the nature of the oil (Gulfaks is unusually biodegradable) dispersed the oil more quickly that might otherwise have been the case. The environmental toll was still vast and preventable, but it would only have been worse had the oil not been Gulfaks. A small mercy, perhaps, but a mercy just the same.

Referenced in:
The Islands — Fairport Convention

1972 – The Tamano oil spill

Early in the morning of July 22, 1971, the oil tanker Tamano briefly ran aground in Casco Bay, Maine. No one noticed this, or the twenty foot long gash in the side of the ship that was now leaking oil into the bay. This particular display of oil transport competence was brought to you by Texaco, and followed the same depressing trajectory as any other oil spill.

The months that followed saw massive environmental damage to the local area, a partial cleanup of the spill at taxpayer expense, and a completely typical denial of liability by the oil company – who passed the buck to the shipping company they’d outsourced to and blamed the government for not making the shipping channels safer. Incredibly, the latter point Texaco actually won a court case over.

Referenced in:

Oil on the Water — Bill Bonyun