Major oil spills of the Shipping World and effects on marine ecology (Part I)

Posted by Daily Shipping Times on 16-04-2018        Tweet

Mr. Milind Joshi, holds a B.Sc. degree from Pune University apart from Diploma in Export Management from Symbiosis, a Certificate course in Journalism from Pune University along with a Certificate course in Finance Management. Professionally he is a Senior Entrepreneurial Manager with over 25 Years experience and has in-depth knowledge in the field of Shipping, International Logistics and International Trade. Currently working as Vice President - Sales with SAR Transport Systems, a leading Freight Forwarding and Logistics Company. Previously he has worked with Samsung Data Systems, Magnum Cargo, AMI India and Transworld Group. Has also rich experience in warehousing, surface transport, distribution and other aspects of Logistics services. He is a published author with three books and several articles published in English and Marathi. He writes on Supply Chain Management and International Trade, and also gives presentations, writes articles and runs a blog on “marine pollution” to create an awareness about it.

Hi Friends, there is an old saying which says, “Of all the things you choose in life, you don't get to choose what your nightmares are. You don't pick them; they pick you”.    

The incidence of an oil spill is the worst nightmare shipping industry can ever think of.   Because there are a lot of extremely complicated processes involved in getting oil from inside the Earth to, say, inside your car’s petrol tank; possibilities of oil spilling at every step are very high.  Oil can spill at any point during the oil production process, from drilling, refining, or storing to transporting. During transportation or shipping, oil may drop accidentally - when ships collide or when a vessel runs aground or catches fire (as happened a few days ago in case of Maersk Honam) or any such accident.  Remember, 800,000 liters of oil-spill in Mumbai seas, during MSC Chitra colliding with Khalija Express in August 2010?

Amount of oil spilled during such accidents can be huge in thousands of tonnes. Fish lovers in Mumbai had to give up relishing sea food during MSC Chitra spill, with a fear that they may consume some bunker fuel along with their favourite Bombay duck!

An oil spill, in brief, is the release of any fossil fuel (like crude oil, bunker fuel, gasoline, diesel or its by-products and various derivatives) into oceans accidentally.

Oil released through such accidents floats on ocean water and as a matter of course rapidly spreads out across vast surface of the water to form a thin layer that we call an oil slick.

As the oil continues spreading, the layer becomes thinner and thinner, finally growing a fragile layer called a sheen, which often looks like a rainbow. (You may have seen sheens on roads or parking lots after rain.) The spilled oil chokes marine ecology in that region entirely and the spread even reaches shores, covering beaches, rocky shores, marshlands, and mangroves. The spill can have disastrous consequences for society; economically, environmentally, and socially and can have a long lasting impact.

A blessing in disguise for shipping industry is that the number of oil spill incidences have declined substantially over the past three decades, and it is reasonable to expect continued improvements in these areas in future years.

On the other hand, because of enormous magnitude of its effects, oil spill accidents have initiated intense media attention and political uproar, bringing many together in a political struggle concerning Government response to oil spills and what actions can best prevent them from happening. It is therefore exciting to know about various incidences of Oil spills that have taken place in the history of shipping and how they have impacted especially marine ecology.  

With this preamble, I would like bring forth to you stories of some of the world’s most significant oil spills and their devastating consequences on marine ecology.

Exxon Valdez oil spill 

Though it is the most famous oil spill in the history of shipping, the Exxon Valdez spill on 24th March 1989 is not the largest one. The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation ranks the Exxon Valdez as 35th on the list of significant oil spills. However environmental damage caused by Exxon Valdez was one of the worst in world history, as she spilled some 41 million liters oil into Alaskan seas. 

The oil tanker Exxon Valdez left the Trans Alaska Pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska at 9:12 p.m. on March 23, carrying 53 million gallons of oil. She was one of the newest ships out of Exxon’s 20 vessel fleet. Under the orders of Capt. Joseph Hazelwood, she steered out of her standard shipping lane to avoid icebergs. Hazelwood ceded control of the wheelhouse to Third Mate Gregory Cousins at approximately 11:53; at the same time, Helmsman Harry Claar was replaced by Robert Kagan.

Shortly after midnight, Cousins tried to steer back into the standard shipping lane, but he could not turn the tanker quickly enough. It struck Bligh Reef at around 12:04 a.m., puncturing 8 out of her 11 cargo tanks. The tanker, stuck up against the reef, began to spill millions of litres of oil into Prince William Sound (an ocean inlet in Gulf of Alaska, in the South of state of Alaska) immediately.

An estimated 41 million litres of oil eventually spilled into the sound, contaminating over 200 kilometers of shoreline. The environmental consequences were devastating; the EVOSTC (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council) estimates that the spill killed “250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.”

Capt. Hazelwood received much of the blame for the accident, especially after reports surfaced that he had been drinking in Valdez bars earlier in the day. But according to the Alaska Oil Spill Commission report, the wreck represents much more than the error of a possibly drunken skipper. It was the result of the gradual degradation of oversight and safety practices that had been intended, 12 years before, to safeguard and backstop the inevitable mistakes of human beings.

Exxon spent around $2 billion cleaning up the spill and a further $1 billion to settle related civil and criminal charges and an additional of $ 500 Million had to be paid by Exxon against punitive damages. 

Though Exxon pledged to clean up the spill thoroughly, there remain thousands of gallons of oil in Prince William Sound that aren't being removed. According to the EVOSTC, “This Exxon Valdez oil is decreasing at a rate of 0-4% per year. …

At this rate, the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely.”



•             Alaska Oil Spill Commission report

•             Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

•             Oil in the sea III; Inputs, Fates, and Effects

•             Website of Live Science

Milind Joshi