You are at:

Amoco Cadiz

Name
Amoco Cadiz
Accident date
16/03/1978
Location
France
Accident area
Portsall, North Finistère
Spill area
Inshore
Cause of spill
Structural damage
Quantity transported
227, 000 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
crude oil
Quantity spilled
227, 000 tonnes
Ship / structure type
Oil tanker
Built date
1974
Length
334.00 m
Width
51.00 m
Flag
Liberian

On 16 March 1978, the oil tanker the Amoco Cadiz, transporting 227,000 tonnes of crude oil, suffered a failure of her steering mechanism, and despite the efforts of the crew of a German tug boat and two unsuccessful towing attempts, ran aground on Portsall Rocks, on the Breton coast. The entire cargo spilled out as the breakers split the vessel in two, progressively polluting 360 km of shoreline from Brest to Saint Brieuc.

Wreck of the Amoco Cadiz at Portsall. Photo: J. Le Fevre
Wreck of the Amoco Cadiz at Portsall. Photo: J. Le Fevre

This was the largest oil spill caused by a tanker grounding ever registered in the world. The consequences of this accident were significant, and it caused the French Government to revise its oil response plan (the Polmar Plan), to acquire equipment stocks (Polmar stocks), to impose traffic lanes in the Channel and to create Cedre. The French Government, along with the local communities affected, prosecuted the Amoco company in the United States. After 14 years of complex proceedings, they eventually obtained 1,257 million francs (190 million euros), less than half of the claimed amount.

The accident

On the morning of 16 March 1978, the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz, en route from the Persian Gulf to Rotterdam with 227,000 tonnes of crude oil, drifted towards the Breton coast in a heavy storm after a failure of her steering system. A German tug boat attempted to assist the tanker, however the situation was difficult and the first towrope, thrown at 1:30 am, broke three hours later. Despite all the efforts made by the crews of both ships, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground at 10 pm near the small port of Portsall. Many tanks were broken in the accident and the first oil slicks quickly reached the coast. The biggest oil slick ever seen due to a stranded tanker had just begun.

Drift of the Amoco Cadiz.
Drift of the Amoco Cadiz.

Within two weeks, the entire cargo had spilled out into the sea and, dragged by the winds and currents, polluted more than 300 km of coast among the most beautiful and natural of Europe. Seething with rage, inhabitants of damaged communities started a desperate fight against this disaster. The French media diffused apocalyptic images of an immense oil slick which shocked the nation.

Not an isolated incident

Oil spills off the Breton coast before 1990
Oil spills off the Breton coast before 1990

This record-breaking oil slick is not an isolated incident. On 18 March 1967 the Torrey Canyon grounding off Lands End (Cornwall, England) already constituted a large-scale warning. The Breton shoreline was affected by oil slicks drifting in the Channel; first in April between Morlaix and Plouescat (in the northwest) and then mid-May 1907 in the bays of Douarnenez and Audierne (in the southwest). On 24 January 1976, the grounding of the VLCC Olympic Bravery, fortunately empty, was a second warning, causing a spill of 1,200 tonnes of bunkers.
 On 16 October, a third incident occurred with the shipwrecking of the Boehlen off the shore of the island of Sein, which led to a spill of 7,000 tonnes of its cargo of heavy Venezuelan crude. The Amoco Cadiz disaster was by no means the last oil spill to hit Brittany. On 28 April 1979, the bulk carrier Gino loaded with heavy Boscan fuel (higher density than water) sank off Ushant Island after a collision. On 7 March 1980, the Madagascan oil tanker the Tanio spilt in two during a storm off Batz Island, and her stern sank with 6,000 tonnes of heavy fuel. On 31 January 1988, one of the tanks of the Italian oil tanker the Amazzone lost 2,100 tonnes of crude oil in a storm off Penmarc’h. This series of oil spills led to a desire to change the course of such events in Brittany, and to see the polluters pay for the damage they had caused.

Last update: 20/02/2008

External links

Itopf, Summary and selected bibliography