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Accident date
Accident area
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Spill area
Cause of spill
Weather conditions
Product transported
Fioul (bunker c)
Quantity transported
30, 000 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
fuel oil (bunker C)
Quantity spilled
14, 000 tonnes
Ship / structure type
Supply ship
Built date
182 m
Nile Steamship Co. Ltd.

The incident

On 15 March 1979, the British tanker Kurdistan left Point Tupper in Nova Scotia (Canada) bound for Quebec, carrying 30,000 tonnes of fuel oil (bunker C). The vessel was 93 km north-east of Sydney (Nova Scotia), near Cape Breton Island, when it suffered violent winds in ice-infested waters. Vertical breaches appeared below the water line in one of the lateral tanks with a total capacity of 10,000 tonnes, from which fuel oil rapidly began to escape.

The experts onboard the Sir William Alexander, Canadian Coast Guard ship sent onsite to assess the damage to the Kurdistan, advised the commanding officer of the tanker to slowly head towards Sydney, the closest port. However, a short time later, the Kurdistan broke in two, spilling 7,000 tonnes of fuel oil into a rough sea. Surprisingly, this did not affect other tanks and the two parts of the ship remained intact. A daring rescue operation by the Sir William Alexander evacuated the 41 crew on the stern section.


The organisations in charge of analysing the different aspects of emergency response were faced with three different problems:

  • the bow which remained afloat with its 7,000 tonnes of fuel oil
  • the stern which contained 16,000 tonnes of fuel oil
  • the rest of the cargo which was spilt when the ship broke in two.

Treating the bow

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) decided that the only possible option for the bow of the ship was to sink it. The chosen location was based on the following criteria:

  • it was located between two currents (the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current)
  • the water was less than 4,755 m deep
  • not much birdlife was present
  • it was outside of fishing areas
  • it was far from the shoreline of Nova Scotia and Sable Island, reducing the probability of contamination of these shores in the event of a subsequent spill. 

Based on these recommendations and other stipulations regarding the actual sinking procedure, the bow was towed to the chosen location then scuttled on 1st April 1979.

Treating the stern

On 18 March, based on research conducted by experts and CCG personnel, it was decided that the stern was salvageable. This part of the ship was to be towed to a port in Nova Scotia to remove the 16,000 tonnes of fuel oil still inside. Four ports were evaluated according to five criteria: environmental sensitivity, exposure to maritime and atmospheric conditions, cleaning potential, distance and nearby populations. Based on this analysis, Port Hawkesbury was chosen as the most suitable location, and the lightering operation was successfully carried out from 28 to 30 March 1979.

Treating the slick

 Constant surveillance of the coastline with CCG helicopters showed that there was no contamination of the ice or shores during the first days. Initially, surveys were conducted to detect the slick and determine its surface area. Later, these missions provided images used to study the behaviour of the slick trapped in the ice. The ice acted as a natural barrier, keeping the fuel oil away from the coast for enough time to find solutions to the problems of the bow and stern, without having to immediately deal with clean-up.
 One of the response methods considered involved cleaning up the fuel oil trapped in the ice before it reached the shore. To do so, the CCG loaded backhoe loaders, floating booms and sorbents onto a barge. They attempted to remove the fuel oil from the water using the loaders. Although this attempt was partially successful, the surface area affected by the slick was too large for this method to be efficient. In the end, clean-up teams removed the fuel oil as it arrived on the shore, using rakes, shovels and forks. The fuel oil’s viscosity in cold water meant it could easily be removed and placed in plastic sacks. Shoreline clean-up operations were carried out by 500 people.


In total, over 880 km of shoreline were cleaned up following the Kurdistan spill. In commercial fishing areas, fishing nets were badly damaged, and to clean them up a “fish-net laundromat”, built for the Arrow spill in 1970, was rehabilitated. This laudromat proved to be very efficient and was used to clean up around a hundred nets, as well as equipment such as floating booms.

It is impossible to accurately assess the number of birds killed, as up to 80% of these birds may have died at sea without their body being washed up on the shore. Nevertheless, according to the Canadian Wildlife Service’s estimations, this number could be somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 birds. Seal mortality was also observed. Crustaceans and shellfish only suffered minimal damage.


- Environnement Canada
- Alain R. Bertrand, 1951-1999, Transport maritime et pollution accidentelle par le pétrole

Last update on 11/06/2010

External links

NOAA database (IncidentNews)

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