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Accident date
Accident area
Le Havre's port
Spill area
Cause of spill
Structural damage
Quantity transported
80, 000 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
bunker fuel oil (Bunker C)
Quantity spilled
187 m³
Ship / structure type
Oil tanker (Double hull)
Built date
232 m

The Katja spill in the Port of Le Havre is an illustration of one important fact, namely that compared with major spills that are often used as "benchmarks", small spills can sometimes require extensive resources and have a major impact on the local economy whilst keeping the media very busy.

The accident

This spill occurred at 12:20 am on 7 August 1997 after a berthing error at oil wharf number 3 in the Port of Le Havre. The Katja is a VLCC with an overall length of 232 metres. She is registered in the Bahamas and was built in 1995, according to new construction standards requiring a double hull imposed by recent US legislation in the wake of the Exxon Valdez. One bunker tank was holed and according to US legislation a double hull was not required for this section of the vessel. Consequently, 187 tonnes of bunker C were released into oil wharf number 3. The oil was an heavy fuel oil with a density of 0.98 and was viscous (350 cSt at 50 °C).

The spill occurred just before ebb tide. As the tugs finished positioning the Katja for berthing, almost half of the spill escaped from the terminal, drifted southwards through the harbour basins polluting port facilities. Approximately 30 to 60 tonnes of the spill escaped from the harbour area on the morning of the 7th and drifted out to sea with the outgoing tide.

Initial countermeasures

Two hours after the spill, floating booms were set up to contain the spill. At 07:40 am Cedre was put on alert by the fire brigade in the Port of Le Havre. After contacting the Port Authorities and the Civil Defence, two engineers from Cedre were sent to assist the Port Authorities. At 08:30 am the Seine Maritime Prefect met with his crisis management specialists but decided not to activate the Polmar Plan.

Response operations

Polmar stockpiles were quickly released for use by the Seine Maritime Prefect. Persistent fog lasted 4 days making aerial reconnaissance impossible. North easterly winds (10 knots) pushed the oil towards the Calvados beaches and the oil began to hit the shore on Friday 8 August from Trouville to Villerville

A strike force of 300 (from the local authorities, the fire brigade, the army) was organised. The beaches in Le Havre and Saint Adresse were only cleaned up on a large scale once the risk of pollution had been averted, 4 days after the spill.

Developments were closely monitored by the Préfecture Maritime in Cherbourg. The tug the Acharné, fitted with dispersant spraying equipment, was sent to spray the slick that was drifting in the Seine estuary. The spraying operation was of limited sucess as the oil was viscous and sea was very calm which meant that the dipsersant and oil did not mix.

During the week that led up to the long weekend of 15 August, crisis management and strike personnel gradually wound down and the ban on bathing was lifted.

Lessons learned

This spill occurred late at night during the holiday season in foggy conditions with not much media coverage to talk of. Here were all the ingredients needed to produce a relatively small scale crisis. As the Port Authorities strived to improve their operational readiness to mitigate a harbour spill and stop it from spreading, Cedre was requested to draw up reflex decision cards for use as part of an operational contingency plan for the port of Antifer, the harbour basins in Le Havre and the Grand Canal. A training exercise was subsequently scheduled in Antifer during the second half of 1998.

Last update on 01/02/2007
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