Oil Disasters Through History: Fourth of Ten

In the days leading up to the 6th month anniversary of the BP deepwater drilling disaster, GRN is highlighting nine previous oil disasters, to give historic context to what the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing, and will experience for years to come.Burmah Agate, 1979While Ixtoc I was still spewing 20,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf daily, Galveston Bay in Texas was already dealing with a new environmental disaster. On November 1, 1979, two tankers, the Burmah Agate and the Mimosa, collided at the entrance to Galveston Harbor, beginning one of the messiest oil disasters to affect the U.S. The word “messy” is used not necessarily to describe the oil itself, but more to describe the politics and clean up that followed the collision.The issues began with the equipment brought over from the Netherlands on November 3, two days after the collision. The boom employed had kinks and lacked boom lights, it also fouled the propeller of a deployment vessel. The boom was damaged by response vessels three times after its initial deployment and needed to be replaced each time. Then, a portside tank exploded, causing oil to burn and the booms to catch on fire. Fires ruined the surrounding booms twice throughout the clean up. Besides the boom, skimmers also proved to hinder more than help. First, a Lockhead skimmer, Open Water Oil Recovery System (OWORS) was positioned but one of the flotation devices was immediately punctured and had to be removed for repairs, as spare parts were not available on site. Two more OWORS were deployed several days later, but with strong currents ranging from .75 knots to 1 knot, the OWORS became completely useless. The skimmers also caused issues when they proved ineffective with moving oil slicks.Worse yet was the business and political issues that interfered with the oil clean up. Offloading operations were delayed over two months, until January 17, 1980. The owners of the Burmah Agate were slow to grant a contract for transferring the oil off the tanker. Eventually, over a four-week time period, approximately 160,000 barrels were saved and kept from leaking into the bay.Beach clean up for the oil spill was more successful than the clean up on the water. By November 21, there were over 400 people cleaning the beaches. Oiled sand was either manually removed or taken away by vacuum trucks. Vacuum trucks were used instead of front-end loaders, which took away too much clean sand with each load.Above Photo: NOAA Incident News, Burmah Agate, November 1979

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