The Runs Aground

The oil tanker Amoco Cadiz lost its steering and ran aground off Portsall, France, spilling its entire cargo of 69 million gallons of crude oil into the sea.


The sea is particularly fruitful in the area around Portsall. Almost 40 percent of France’s seafood comes from the area called Brittany, where Portsall is located. Thousands of fishermen work out of Brittany’s ports. More than 75 percent of France’s seaweed harvest comes from this area. The seaweed is used in fertilizer, cosmetics, and animal feed. Tourism is also important. All these industries were hard hit by the pollution from the Amoco Cadiz oil spill. Oil spills

Although not officially notified of the impending disaster, the French authorities were not caught by surprise. There were five naval observation posts and four signal posts along the coast near Ushant. The drifting tanker was spotted and tracked on radar. Messages flew back and forth, but everyone assumed that the situation was under control or that it was someone else’s problem. As a result, France’s Plan POLMAR, its strategy for coping with a big oil spill, was not put into effect until many hours after oil began pouring into the sea. This plan was designed to deal with a spill of 30,000 tons, about one-seventh the amount of oil aboard the Amoco Cadiz.

Meetings were convened in Paris and in Quimper, near Portsall, at about 2:00 a.m. on March 17. Plan POLMAR was rather vague; it did not designate anyone to be in charge of the operation. Both meetings reached the conclusion that early efforts needed to be made to stop the flow of oil from the ship and to protect the sensitive areas of the coast. Prompt action was difficult, because Plan POLMAR was unclear about specific authority, responsibility, and funding. Worse still, no large-scale practice run had ever been conducted.

When the ship ran aground, tanks containing about 70,000 tons of oil were sliced open by the rocks. That amount was enough to cause major problems, but when the remaining 150,000 tons escaped, the disaster became much worse. The French branch of Shell Oil made three smaller tankers available on March 17, and Amoco dispatched four large diesel-powered pumps from Detroit, Michigan. The plan was to pump oil out of the undamaged tanks into the smaller tankers. Since no ship ever intentionally went where the Amoco Cadiz drifted, there were no good nautical charts (maps) showing depth of water in the area. Before small tankers could move in close enough to receive oil pumped from the Amoco Cadiz, depth measurements were needed. Bad weather prevented the depth-measuring boat from performing its task. Meanwhile, the waves and rocks continued to damage the big tanker. Within two weeks, and before any oil could be pumped out of the tanks, every drop of oil was released into the sea.

French authorities considered setting the oil on fire. This can be an effective procedure, since burning oil produces mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor, and neither of these substances is toxic. Because oil mixes rapidly with seawater to form an emulsion that does not burn readily, however, burning must be done immediately after a spill. Concern about the politics of burning caused the authorities to hesitate, and soon burning was impossible.

Defensive efforts were under way to protect vulnerable areas. Floating barriers called oil booms were stretched across the entrances to inlets containing shellfish beds at Aber Ildut, Aber Benoit, Aber Wrach, and the Bay of Morlaix. In the end, these efforts failed. For various reasons, oil reached all the shellfish beds. Dispersant chemicals are another weapon for dealing with an oil spill. These chemicals break up the oil into small droplets. Although dispersing the oil does not eliminate it, small droplets decompose much faster than large slicks, and they do far less environmental damage. The dispersant chemicals themselves are somewhat toxic, so their use is controversial. As a compromise, authorities permitted the use of dispersants, but only at distances greater than three miles from shore. This excluded the dispersants from the areas where they might have been most effective.

Because burning was forbidden and dispersing was very limited, more than sixty thousand tons of oil washed up on the beaches of Brittany. In the end, oil covered about 250 miles of the coast. Heavy pollution reached east as far as Paimpol and southwest to the Bay of Douarnenez. A thin sheen was seen on the water near the islands of Guernsey and Jersey and near the beautiful island abbey Mont Saint-Michel.

Removal of oil from the beaches was accomplished by the crudest of methods. Vacuum trucks suctioned off what they could reach, but thousands of people using shovels and even spoons painstakingly scooped up oil, sand, and debris by hand. In mid-April, there were some sixty-five hundred people involved. About forty-five hundred of these people were military or police who were ordered to the scene. The remaining two thousand were volunteers.

Perhaps twenty thousand seabirds were killed by the pollution—a much lower death toll than might have been expected from the size of the spill. Free-swimming fish apparently fled the oil, since only ten thousand dead fish were found throughout the area. Oysters and clams were killed in massive numbers; crabs and lobsters were also heavily affected. Overall, in the affected areas about 5 percent of the sea plants and 30 percent of the sea animals were killed. The 1978 tourist season in Brittany was a disaster. There were seven million fewer tourists in that year than in 1977.

On April 18, 1984, U.S. district judge Frank J. McGarr McGarr, Frank J. found Standard Oil of Indiana and its subsidiaries fully responsible for all claims arising from the spill. The owners of the tug Pacific were not found liable in any way. Numerous changes have been made in the rules for designing and operating ships as a result of the Amoco Cadiz grounding. These rules should reduce, but cannot eliminate, the possibility of similar disasters. Oil spills
Disasters;oil spills
Ecological disasters

Further Reading

  • Cahill, Richard A. Disasters at Sea: Titanic to Exxon Valdez. Kings Point, N.Y.: American Merchant Marine Foundation, 1990. Captain Cahill, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy with forty years experience at sea, brings the perspective of an expert to the analysis of the disaster. He probes issues whose importance other authors have failed to grasp. The book deals with the events leading up to the grounding, not with the cleanup.
  • _______. Strandings and Their Causes. London: Fairplay, 1985. The account of the disaster in this book is more detailed than in Captain Cahill’s 1990 book. Again, the perspective of a man who has been a shipmaster himself gives this book a special place in the analysis of the grounding.
  • Chelminski, Rudolph. Superwreck. New York: William Morrow, 1987. Chelminski commits the unpardonable sin of calling Amoco Cadiz a boat, something no true seaman would ever do. Still, the book contains a clear, detailed account of events leading up to the grounding and of the major investigations that followed. Coverage of the spill and cleanup is brief. Eight pages of black-and-white photographs, mostly of the wrecked tanker, are included.
  • “Disaster off the Brittany Coast.” Time, April 3, 1978, 64-65. This brief early report, which deals mostly with the grounding of the ship, contains several vivid photographs. Another short article appears in the April 10, 1978, issue. The second article focuses on the spill and its cleanup.
  • Fairhall, David, and Philip Jordan. The Wreck of the Amoco Cadiz. New York: Stein and Day, 1980. These authors provide useful introductory material covering tanker accidents that preceded the Amoco Cadiz. Following a clear, brief account of events leading to the grounding, there is a detailed account of the spill and cleanup.
  • Freedman, Bill. Environmental Ecology: The Ecological Effects of Pollution, Disturbance, and Other Stresses. 2d ed. London: Academic Press, 1995. A well-illustrated textbook with plenty of case studies. Chapter 6 discusses the effects of oil pollution.
  • Grove, Noel. “Black Day for Brittany.” National Geographic, July, 1978, 124-135. Excellent color photographs. The wreck itself, the effects of the spill, and the cleanup effort are effectively depicted in eleven pages of pictures. A small map shows the extent of the pollution and the location of fishing centers and resort areas.
  • _______. “Sailing with the Supertankers.” National Geographic, July, 1978, 102-124. Provides very useful background information and contains an excellent cutaway drawing of a large tanker as well as photographs of life aboard. An artist’s rendering shows the major oil trade-routes of the world.

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