History Repeats Itself: A Look at a Few Other Notable Oil Spills
The oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico begs comparison with other oil-related disasters. Here's a look at a few notable spills, including the largest in international history (and it's not the Exxon Valdez).
Exxon Valdez, March 24, 1989
Cause: Union Oil workers were attempting to pull a drilling tube out of a well stationed between five and six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. A pressure imbalance in the pipe strained the casing of the upper portion of the well, prompting workers to attempt to cap it. That only made things worse. Under extreme pressure, a burst of natural gas blew out all the drilling mud, splitting the well casing and cracking the seafloor, according to a 2001 retrospective paper presented at the 64th Annual Meeting of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. “Gas and mud from 3,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface shot into the air, splattering the panicked workers on the platform with grease and grime,” recounts Miles Corwin in a 1989 article from the Santa Barbara Independent. “They managed to plug the well, but nothing could control the oil and gas. Eight hundred feet away from the platform, the sea boiled furiously.” It took nearly 12 days for workers to cap the well. Adding insult to injury, on Valentine’s Day of that year, another well blew out resulting in an additional spill, according to the County of Santa Barbara Planning and Development website.
Cause: Responding to U.S. pressure to relinquish occupation of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army set fire to more than 600 oil wells in several oil fields. Then it turned to the water, discharging about 6-8 million barrels of oil—which translates to at least 10 billion (with a “b”) gallons—into the Persian Gulf. The main emission came from a terminal, the second largest from several tankers, according to a 2003 report by King’s College in London, England. At least 80 ships were also sunk during the war as well, many which also carried oil and munitions. This was the largest oil spill on record.