The World’s Worst Oil Disaster Happened Off Tobago

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The extent of damage caused to people and places as a result of crude oil spill in Gulf of Paria is currently unknown.

What happened?

On December 2013, a crude oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Paria and the state-owned oil company Petrotrin and the politicians ruled it under control and implied that there was no long term impact.

But the environmentalists beg to differ and allege that the spill will have long-term implications for the health of coastal communities, wetland, and fisheries from the spillage of 7,500 barrels of oil the estimated quantity of crude that leaked before it was plugged.

The spill is considered the worst in Trinidad and Tobago which has more than a century of oil production history.

Worst ever oil spill

The readers might be surprised to learn that an oil spill which occurred on July 19, 1979 in the territorial waters of Trinidad and Tobago, is still ranked as among the largest, and deadliest, in history.

The 331-metre-long supertanker ‘Aegean Captain’ was loaded with 200,000 tonnes of crude oil and a crew of 36, was en route to Singapore from Aruba collide with another tanker ‘Atlantic Empress’ which was headed to Beaumont, Texas, in the United States containing 276,000 tonnes of crude oil.

The reason for the collision was attributed to lack of visibility due to a blinding rainstorm, approximately 18 kilometres off the east coast of Tobago. The total capacity of both ships equalled 3.5 million barrels of oil. The vessel could not avert the collision on time and the starboard bow of the Aegean Captain was torn open by the impact, setting off an fire that could not be controlled by the crews. The ships were ultimately abandoned by their respective crew members.

The deadliest collision also claimed the lives twenty six people onboard the Atlantic Empress and the life of the captain of the Aegean Captain. The survivors jumped into the water to save themselves from fire and swam underwater to avoid burning oil patches. A total of 55 people were rescued by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and rushed to hospital for treatment.

Hardest ever operation

Within 24 hours, a response to the spill was under way and the Clean Caribbean Cooperative, formed by a group of oil companies only four months before to pool resources to fight oil spill pollution, was activated.

Officials and experts fought tooth and nail for weeks to contain the oil spill which blackened the beaches of Tobago and caused irreparable damage to coral reefs, environment and economy.

Equipment and the chemicals needed to disperse the oil were brought in by land and by air. Aircraft and ships with spray chemical dispersants were sent to the scene by AMOCO (now BP), Texaco, and Trintoc (now Petrotrin) while an oil disaster crew was dispatched by Mobil Oil (which owned the Empress cargo).

Massive spill

The crude oil spill was massive and it was reported that 259 square kilometres of the Caribbean Sea was covered with an oil sheen, with the fringe of the spill within eight kilometres of Tobago.

German tugboats attached lines to the burning Atlantic Empress to tow it further out to sea and away from Tobago.

The smoke stack from the fires out at sea could be seen by sunbathing tourists. Falling soot from the burning oil forced the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) to cut the flow of water from the Charlotteville dam.

However, the Atlantic Empress was an inferno. Firefighters allowed a controlled burn, to lessen the amount of polluting crude pouring from the rupturing tanks.

To this date, the crude oil spill of July 19, 1979 has been recorded as the World’s worst ever oil disaster off the Tobago coast.

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Source: Trinidad Express

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