Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters

Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters: A Major Threat to Ecology

A recent gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico in an underwater pipeline that caused the ‘eye of fire’ caught the attention of the world. The gas leak led to the ocean being on ‘fire’ with bright raging flames that boiled up from under the water onto the surface of the ocean. Gas from the pipeline started leaking early in the morning on Friday in Campeche Sound. Though there was no spill and the fire came under control, it certainly left behind an impact on the marine ecological systems.  Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters in the World!

Mexico Eye of Fire
Credit: Morning Post

Everything a person does affects the environment and different species on the planet in one way or another. But there are certain disasters that create huge impacts on the environment, and more in a destructive way. The world has witnessed many oil spills and pipeline accidents that cause humongous oil spills in the ocean and also destroy the ecosystem both on the sea and on land. Let us look at some of the major oil spills and pipeline disasters in the world.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Credit: The New Yorker

Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters in the World

Gulf War Oil Spill

The largest oil spill in the world was no accident, but an outcome of war. The spill occurred during the Gulf War of 1991 when Iraqi forces opened up the pipelines and valves of oil wells as they withdrew troops from Kuwait. They also set a fire to block the USA forces from landing in the region. The fire was so huge and devastating that it started in January 1991 and continued till April of the same year. This resulted in the discharge of 240 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, which killed millions of marine animals.

Deepwater Horizon

This is also known as the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill and BP oil spill. It is the largest oil spill that has occurred in the history of the petroleum industry. In April 2010, an oil spill accident occurred when a spill from an oil gusher on the seabed occurred. It led to a massive explosion of BP’s oil rig named Deepwater Horizon, on its Macondo Prospect. The explosion took the lives of 11 men who were onboard the rig, and caused an oil spill for three continuous months. The massive spill leaked around 53,000 barrels into the Gulf of Mexico each day. Subsequently, it caused destruction to the ecological system and killed more than 82,000 birds, 25,900 species of marine mammals, 6,000 sea turtles and millions of fishes.

Ixtoc 1 Oil Well

The Gulf of Mexico has witnessed several oil spills and pipeline disasters. Earlier in June 1979, the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico witnessed the collapse of a big oil well that was operated by the Mexican petroleum company, Pemex. Around 140 million gallons of oil spilled each day over a period of 10 months. This spill occurred around the region of Rancho Nuevo, which is a prominent nesting site for the famous Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles on the Mexican coast. Environmentalists and marine specialists relocated thousands of baby sea turtles in a effort to remove them to a cleaner and safer place from the spill.

Atlantic Empress Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters
Credit: Reddit

Atlantic Empress

In July 1979, two huge oil tankers collided in the Caribbean Sea, near the coast of Tobago. The accident occurred during a tropical storm and soon after the accident, the supertankers ‘Atlantic Empress’ and ‘Aegean Captain’ started leaking their cargo and also caught fire. Reports stated that around 88.3 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the sea, making the disaster one of the highest ship-sourced oil spills in the world. The accident also took the lives of 26 crew members onboard the Atlantic Empress.

Nowruz Field Platform

During the 1983 Iran-Iraq War, an oil tanker crashed into the Nowruz Field platform located in the Persian Gulf. This led to a huge oil spill with an estimation of around 80 million gallons of oil spilling out in the Persian Gulf over a period of seven months. The capping of the oil pipeline occurred in September after the war subsided. The accident took the lives of 11 people, and the spill caused a lot of harm to the marine ecosystem and lives.

ABT Summer

ABT Summer, an oil tanker exploded on May 28, 1991 around 700 nautical miles off the coast of Angola. It soon caught fire and spilled around 51 million gallons of oil into the sea. The oil slick spread across 80 square miles. The tanker burnt for three days until it capsized, taking the lives of five of 32 crew members who were onboard the vessel. As the incident occurred in high seas, much of the spilled oil dispersed, thus reducing the impact on the marine ecosystem.

Castillo de Bellver

The Spanish tanker Castillo de Bellver caught fire enroute to the Persian Gulf from Spain around 70 miles northwest of Capetown. The tanker had 250,000 tonnes of light crude oil onboard during the time of the accident in August 1983. The abandoned burning vessel split into two and its stern sank with a whopping 110,000 tons of oil inside its tanks. Environmentalists state that though the impact on the fish ecosystem was considerably less, the accident caused damage to thousands of gannets who gathered on a nearby island for breeding.

Amoco Cadiz
Credit: Wikipedia

Amoco Cadiz

The Amoco Cadiz oil tanker ran aground after a failed steering system in March 1978, and started a significant oil spill near the coast of Brittany in France. It later split into half and sunk, spilling a cargo of 246,000 tons of light crude oil spill spreading into the waters of the English Channel. The oil spill cleaning was a massive and rather futile effort. The slick spread quickly, covering an area of 18 miles and 80 miles in length. As 76 beaches suffered oil spill effects, it killed more marine life than any other oil spill recorded till then.

Odyssey Oil Spill

The Liberian tanker ‘Odyssey’ that was loaded with 43 million gallons of North Sea crude oil split into two and sunk near the Canadian coast in November 1988. Reports stated that the ship sunk around 700 miles off the Nova Scotia coast after a massive disaster and explosion. It spilled 43 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean that covered an area of around 4.8 km x 16 km.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

When it comes to listing the volume of oil discharged into the marine ecosystems, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill lists as the second largest in US waters. The disastrous accident occurred when it ran aground on the Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in Alaska in 1989. Around 10.9 million gallons of oil out of a total of 58 million gallons were moved onto the Alaskan Coastline post the accident. This resulted in substantial damage to the eco-system and killed over a million marine species, including almost 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 species of sea otters and 300 harbour seals. It also drastically impacted the tourism and fishing industry of the region.

Kolva River Spill
Credit: Barrents Observer

Kolva River Spill

The Kolva River oil spill occurred as a result of breach in a corroded oil pipeline located in the Russian Arctic. The oil spilled and pooled near the rupture site for a period of eight months. Though it was contained by a dike, it soon gave way and there was a further spill of around 84 million gallons of oil into the Kolva River. The spill caused massive damage to around 186 square km of lush tundra and wetlands.

Mingbulak Oil Spill

Also known as the Fergana Valley Oil Spill, it is the biggest land-based oil spill in history and also the worst oil spill in Asia. It occurred in Uzbekistan in March 1992 when a blowout on an oil well spilled oil that spread into the valley near Fergana. Soon after, the oil caught fire and continuously burned for two months before it subsided. Of the total 88 million gallons that spilled, more than 88 million gallons of oil were protected from fire.

Lakeview Well

In 1910, the Lakeview Oil Well erupted and released a massive amount of crude oil in the form of a geyser. The oil continued to gush out for as long as 22 days with the same force. Thereafter, engineers tried to control the fountain of crude oil with ‘hoods’ that workers concocted. However, it remained ineffective. The spill led to around 40,000- 50,000 barrels of crude oil being depleted every day. Finally, in September 1911, the oil well broke down into itself and sealed the leak.

More than 378 million gallons of crude oil spilled in this tragic disaster.  However, despite the massive amounts of oil spilling into the region, there was substantially less environmental impact. Black mist formed and spread around a few miles of the Lakeview Oil Well. However, the rescue work contained the damage significantly. Dikes were later constructed by hand to prevent the oil from contaminating and spilling into the Buena Vista Lake. Even now, one can see several parts of the region soaked in oil spills.

MT Haven Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters
Credit: Runner

Motor Tanker Haven

When the MT Haven carrier was onloading a huge cargo load of oil at the Multedo Oil Platform near Italy in April 1991, a massive explosion occurred on the site. It led to a destructive fire that claimed the lives of five crew members. Three days after the explosion, the tanker sunk. The disaster led to around 45 million gallons of crude oil spilling across the Mediterranean Sea.

Post the incident, the Italian government initiated a massive cleanup operation which contained the extent of the disaster. Also, the majority of the spilled oil was burned on the surface and more oil was also pumped out of the fiery ship. The spill and explosion caused significant environmental damage to the fisheries along the French and Italian coasts.

Torrey Canyon

In March 1967, the supertanker ‘Torrey Canyon’ rammed into the rocks off the coast of Cornwall. It resulted in a massive spill of more than 100,000 tonnes of crude oil across the English Channel. This spill was the first major oil spill in English and European waters and caused a lot of damage to marine life and the livelihood of local people. It is considered as one of the worst environmental disasters in the UK.

The beaches had knee-deep sludges and the spill also killed species like 15,000 sea birds that washed up on the shores. Additionally, the effects of the disaster spill lasted for years and affected the entire food chain (including the tiny plankton and small invertebrates), to mussels and clams, and up the food chain to species of fish, birds, and aquatic mammals.

The British initiated a cleanup effort with the use of powerful chemicals. This worsened the situation, killing more marine species and damaging the entire ecosystem. The chemicals pooled across the beaches before they were washed away by the tides, spilling into the oceans and harming aquatic life. It took around 13-15 years to recover from this disastrous scene.


Belle Fourche pipeline
Credits: NPR

Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters in the World

Western North Dakota, Belfield

Around 150 miles off the Oceti Sakowin Camp, a massive leak was discovered in the Belle Fourche pipeline. The leak oozed out around 176,000 gallons of oil into the region. 10 days into the oil spill, less than a 1/3rd of the total oil was recovered.

Yellowstone River, Wyoming

Bridger Pipeline’s Poplar oil line spilled 32,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipeline was originally supposed to be buried deep eight feet beneath the flowing river bed. However, after the spill, investigators discovered the pipeline to be entirely exposed. However, this was not the first pipeline accident in Yellowstone. In 2013, an Exxon pipeline spilled around 63,000 gallons of oil into the river when it got exposed and was damaged by flood debris.

Kalamazoo River, Michigan

In south-central Michigan, a thirty-inch sized pipeline carrying diluted bitumen exploded a  six-foot gash and spilled out 843,000 gallons of heavy oil into the Kalamazoo River. It was one of the biggest inland oil spills in the history of the United States.

Exxon Oil Spills and Pipeline Disasters
Credits: DeSmog

Mayflower, Arkansas

Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst in Arkansas, spilling around 210,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen across a residential subdivision and also into Lake Conway.

Burnaby, British Columbia

In British Columbia, a backhoe jammed into the Trans-mountain Pipeline near Westridge and spilled more than 59,000 gallons of crude oil across a residential neighborhood.

Sissonville, West Virginia

In Mountain State, a 20-inch transmission line blasted, enveloping entire Interstate 77 in a cloud of flames and destroyed many residential buildings.. The pipeline damaged was constructed during the 1960’s.

Salem Township, Pennsylvania

In 2016, a thirty-inch gas transmission line blasted off in western Pennsylvania. The Spectra Energy transmission line was constructed during the 1980’s.

Shelby County, Alabama

In 2016, an excavator conducting repair work on the Colonial Pipeline rammed into a massive gasoline transmission line. It led to a fiery explosion and the death of two civilians.


Oil spills and pipeline disasters are a regular occurrence in present times! Corporations, oil companies and pipeline construction agencies should take into account and think about the ecosystems and take proactive measures.

Leave a Reply