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The agony of the Atlantic Empress, a large sinking oil tanker in flames. Trinidad Tobago.


Description:

One of most detailed sources (written by Mobil Oil experts) (5) explains that "at 1900 hours on July 19, 1979, the 288,000-deadweight-ton (dwt) Atlantic Empress and the 207,000-dwt Aegean Captain collided in the Caribbean Sea. In the fiery aftermath of the accident, 27 crewmen lost their lives. There was a strong possibility that a total of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil would be spilled; this would have been the largest spill to that time. Nearby islands with their tourist beaches and coral reefs were threatened. And yet, even though the Atlantic Empress eventually sank after burning for 14 days, no oil came ashore and no indications of any environmental damage were observed.". Most of the oil in the  Aegean Captain was saved after the ship was towed to port in Cuaraçao, while the Atlantic Empress was towed outwards from the place of the accident (at about 18 miles northeast of Tobago) towards the island of Barbados. Great efforts were made by salvage crews to save its cargo but after two weeks at sea and many explosions and fires, it sunk on 3rd August. A consequence of this terrible accident is that over 250,000 tons of crude oil were burned and were spilled to the ocean. 

As reprted by the New York Times (7), "the damaged ships have the potential for creating one of the largest oil spills ever. So far, the greatest amount of oil spilled into the sea was 1.37 million barrels from a Mexican well that blew out in the Gulf of Mexico on June 3. In March of last year, 1.3 million barrels of oil were lost when the tanker Amoco Cadiz broke apart off the coast of France.( 7). Initially the  rescue effort and attempts to contain the oil spill are in the hands of the Coast Guard of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

This was  the fifth largest oil spill on record. (1)  The 347 meter long Atlantic Empress was en route to Beaumont, Texas from Saudi Arabia.  Built in 1974, the 5 year old tanker was headed to the Mobil Oil terminal with 276,000 tons of light crude oil.  Heading in the opposite direction, the 210,257 dwt VLCC Aegean Captain was en route to Singapore with 200,000 tons of light and heavy crude oil from Curaçao and Bonaire.(1) The collision between the two Greek-owned and Liberian-flagged supertankers kiled about 27 people sailors (most of them in the Atlantic Empres). The Trinidad and Tobago  coastal guard rescued people who survived at sea. The bodies of dead people were not recuperated (6). 

Around 7 p.m. on July 2, the two vessels were passing  18 miles off the island of Tobago.  Visibility was near zero inside a tropical rainstorm with heavy downpours.   On the Aegean Captain, the second officer caught sight of the the Atlantic Express as the two vessels were just some  500 meters away.  He ordered the vessel to maneuver away from the Atlantic Empress, but there was no way to prevent the collision.  The bow of the Aegean Captain struck a blow into the side of the Atlantic Empress.  Immediately, there was a large explosion and both tankers burst into flames.(1). (3). 

The Atlantic Empress remained on fire and adrift.   An oil slick was observed about 10 miles in length by 2 miles wide.  A salvage team from Smit were dispatched to attempt to control the fire while two tugs were to take the Empress under tow and take it further out to sea.  The salvage team was unable to control the blaze.

On the Aegean Captain, the fire was brought under control by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.  Disabled by the collision, the tanker was  towed first toward Trinidad.  Ten officers remained on board trying to repair damage.  It was decided the Aegean Captain would be taken to Curaçao.  As the Aegean Captain was being towed, it was also releasing a small quantity of crude oil.  The tug sprayed dispersants to control the environmental impact. When the Aegean Captain arrived in Curaçao, the remaining oil was transferred to other tankers. (1). 

On July 24, the Atlantic Empress was still burning, but was 135 miles from Tobago.   A  50 miles oil slick was visible, but it was not near any shoreline. The two tugs continued to spray water onto the deck in hopes to cool the intensity of the blaze. From July 25 to July 28, the firefighting efforts seemed to be working.  The Smit salvage team reported that the amount of oil being released was slowing and fire fighters were able to board the vessel and closed water intakes, fire doors.  The fire was contained to just the two starboard tanks.  On July 29, the fire fighters renewed their efforts on the Atlantic Empress.  (1) (3).   By the end of the day, the fighter fighters left the Atlantic Empress planning to return the next day to extinguish the blaze.  Just a few minutes after the fighter fighters left the tanker, there was large explosion on the Atlantic Empress.  The flames reached 300 feet into the air.  The explosion destroyed most of the firefighting equipment and  the fire now was increasing to other portions of the vessel including 2 center tanks and a tank on the port side of the vessel. On  August 2, the condition of the hull of the Atlantic Empress worsen.  The tugs let go the remaining towlines which signaled the end of any fire fighting efforts.  The Atlantic Empress gradually became engulfed in flames as oil pooled around the tanker.   Witnesses stated the bow was red hot from the intense fire until it sank.  Aircraft reported flames extended 500 feet into the air with smoke reaching 6,000 feet into the air. Finally, on 3 August, the Empress sank, having spilled 287,000 metric tonnes of crude oil into the Caribbean Sea. By comparison, in the Exxon Valdez spill ten years later was "only" 37,000 metric tonnes of oil. (1) (4). 

The Atlantic Empress took nearly two weeks to sink after the collision.  The fire consumed a large portion of the oil cargo, but there was still some 30 mile by 60 miles slick still visible.  Aircraft flew over the area and continued to spray dispersants.  No significant pollution reached the shore on the nearby islands. (5). 

However, no impact study was conducted by the countries impacted by the pollution.   Neither vessel had provided adequate lookouts and had failed to reduce their speed. Focus on this disaster was to some extent eclipsed by the explosion of the drilling rig Ixtoc in the Gulf of Mexico on June 3, 1979, off Bahia de Campeche, up to 210,000 tons. 

The collision became a major event in litigation with salvage companies claiming compensation for their efforts in trying to prevent both a major spill and major shore pollution.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:The agony of the Atlantic Empress, a large sinking oil tanker in flames. Trinidad Tobago.
Country:Trinidad and Tobago
State or province:Tobago
Location of conflict:North-east of Tobago
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Crude oil

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Atlantic Empress was a Greek oil tanker that in 1979 collided with the oil tanker Aegean Captain in the Caribbean, and eventually sank, having created the fifth largest oil spill on record and the largest ship-based spill having spilled approximately 287,000 metric tonnes of crude oil into the Caribbean Sea. It was built at the Odense Staalskibsværft shipyard in Odense, Denmark, and launched on 16 February 1974.(2)

The Atlantic Empress was longer than three football stadiums lined end to end. She was valued at $45 million. When she collided with the Aegean Captain, another fully laden supertanker, on July 19, 1979, the result was a catastrophe: the worst oil tanker spill in history and a blaze that took firefighters over two weeks to extinguish. They never managed to extinguish it, the ship sank after two weeks and spilled on the oil it contained still (2). Two weeks after the collision, the Empress, still in flames, sank on August 3, the biggest commercial tanker to sink in recent years, and the largest amount of crude (275,000 tons) ever lost from a single ship. Twenty-six of the two ships members, all Greeks, were reported missing and presumed dead, and 50 others were hurried to a Tobago hospital, suffering from severe burns. (2).

As reported by CEDRE (3), "on 3 August at dawn, only an oil slick remained on the surface of water. The biggest vessel ever to have sunk had disappeared after 15 days of agony. Followed by surveillance tug boats, the oil still visible at the surface had totally disappeared by 9 August, without touching the shore. The total loss of the 280,000 tonnes of oil as a result of this collision holds the world record for an oil tanker accident. Nobody will ever know what was burned and what was dispersed by the sea. No significant shore pollution was recorded on the nearest islands. No impact study was carried out, either by the surrounding countries, or the international community, as awareness regarding marine pollution was less developed then than it is today. Furthermore, at that time all eyes were turned towards another disaster, the explosion of the Ixtoc I drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico." (3).

A report from the EC (in 2011) (8) places the Atlantic Express oil spill in the third place in this ranking.

1) Deepwater Horizon – United States, 2010 – Type: Blowout – Spill (tonnes): 666,400

2) Ixtoc 1 -Mexico, 1979 – Type: Blowout – Spill (tonnes): 476,000

3) Atlantic Empress -Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, 1979 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 287,000

4) Nowruz Oil Field – Iran, 1983 – Type: Blowout – Spill (tonnes): 272,000

5) ABT Summer – Angola, 1991 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 260,000

6) Castillo de Bellver – South Africa, 1983 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 252,000

7) Amoco Cadiz – France, 1978 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 223,000

8) Haven – Italy, 1991 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 144,000

9) Odyssey – Canada, 1988 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 132,000

10) Torrey – Canyon UK, 1967 – Type: Tanker – Spill (tonnes): 119,000

Level of Investment for the conflictive projectapprox. 270,000,000 + 45,000,000
Start of the conflict:19/07/1979
Company names or state enterprises:Mobil Oil from United States of America - Mobil Oil owned the Atlantic Empress’ cargo
Relevant government actors:Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Tobago Red Cross cared for survivors

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Oil spills, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
Other Health impactsThe explosions and fires killed 29 people
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Atlantic Empress was lost, with its cargo gone in flames or sunk in the sea. No careful scientific reporting was done of the damage. Human lives were lost by the initial explosion and fires. A detailed account is given in source (5).

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

(5) THE ATLANTIC EMPRESS SINKING—A LARGE SPILL WITHOUT ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER . Stuart A. Horn; Captain Phillip Neal

International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings (1981) 1981 (1): 429–435.
https://doi.org/10.7901/2169-3358-1981-1-429

(4) In history: Tobago, site of the world's largest oil tanker spill

Loop News July 19, 2019
https://cayman.loopnews.com/content/history-tobago-site-worlds-largest-oil-tanker-spill-4

(2) Tom Soter, Supertankers collide in Caribbean. October 1979.
http://www.tomsoter.com/2020/01/07/oil-tanker-fire/

A still optimistic view in The Washington Post, by 26 July 1979. Salvage Crew Defies Fire in Attempt to Save Oil Tanker. By Ken RingleJuly 26, 1979
https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/07/26/salvage-crew-defies-fire-in-attempt-to-save-oil-tanker/c44cc48c-e21c-4e28-9fc3-d5ff3ea311ab/

(6). The world's worst oil disaster happened off Tobago 1979 tanker collision sparks blaze, huge oil spill off Tobago. Richard Charan May 28, 2018 . (a report of 2018 written in Tobago, recalling the facts).
https://trinidadexpress.com/features/local/the-worlds-worst-oil-disaster-happened-off-tobago/article_f27053c9-945e-59a3-8d38-46a5e7679645.html

(1) Atlantic Express. Shipwreck Blog.
https://shipwrecklog.com/log/history/atlantic-empress/

(7). The New York Times, Tankers Collide in Atlantic and Spill Oil.

By Joseph B. Treaster. July 21, 1979
https://www.nytimes.com/1979/07/21/archives/tankers-collide-in-atlantic-and-spill-oil-26-missing-oil-tankers.html

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

ITOPF. ATLANTIC EMPRESS, West Indies, 1979. Case study.
https://www.itopf.org/in-action/case-studies/atlantic-empress-west-indies-1979/

(8) POTENTIAL COSTS OF AN OFFSHORE ACCIDENT. “Safety of offshore oil & gas Impact Assessment Annex I” working paper from the European Commission, published in 2011
https://officerofthewatch.com/2013/07/16/potential-costs-of-an-offshore-accident/

Other comments:This is one of the main oil spills around the world included in the list of 14 compiled by Laura Moss, updated January 2022, https://www.treehugger.com/the-largest-oil-spills-in-history-4863988

Meta information

Last update05/08/2022
Conflict ID:6106

Images

 

Public Domain

Source: Hein Hinrichs