In Portsall, a fishing village of 1,200 located on a knob of France
that juts into the North Atlantic, people awoke on March 17, 1978, to
find one of the biggest ships in the world wrecked and broken on the
rocks off their beach, and a black tide rolling in.
During the next two weeks, as it slowly sank, the Amoco Cadiz spilled 65
million gallons of Arabian and Iranian crude oil into the sea off the
French coast. Eventually it spread, thinning to a slick that moved 200
miles east, blackening the white sands and rocky shores of 100 coastal
communities. But on that first day, so much oil was dumped so quickly
and so close to shore that when the tide came in at Portsall,
petroleum, not water, filled the harbor.
years after the worst tanker grounding in history, the owners of the
Amoco Cadiz have paid not one penny in damages to anyone. The case is
still in litigation in Chicago and seems doomed to remain in federal
court for several more years.
Machines fail, and so do men. From a victim's point of view, the 1978
wreck of the Amoco Cadiz, still the largest grounding disaster in
history, is an example.
Cadiz was one of four VLCCs (very large crude carriers) built for Amoco
in the early 1970s by Astilleros Espanoles ancient and respected
shipwrights who 500 years earlier built the Nina, the Pinta and the
Santa Maria. At 1,095 feet, the Cadiz was 108 feet longer the Exxon Valdez.
March 1978, two of the giant tankers were being used by Amoco to ferry
its own oil around the world and two were leased out to other oil
companies. The Cadiz was on longterm lease to Shell Oil.
For Capt. Pasquale Bardari and his crew of 40, March 16 was the last day of
a sixweek voyage with a full load of crude oil from the Persian Gulf.
Their trip took them down the west coast of Africa, around the Horn and
up the Atlantic coast en route to the Netherlands, with a stop first in England.
Bardari, 35, had served on Amoco vessels since 1970, overcoming a series of
unsatisfactory evaluations to eventually become a captain in 1975. This
was his first trip in charge of the Cadiz.
Galeforce winds and seas rough enough to bounce around 233,000 tons of steel
pounded the tanker as it reached the northwestern tip of France and
made a right turn into the English Channel, one of the busiest shipping
routes in the world. In his book "Superwreck," author Rudi Chelminski
estimated that "something like a billion tons of merchandise a year, or
a quarter of the world's circulation of goods," pass through the
English Channel, including 300 million gallons of crude oil a day.
To promote safety, the Channel has a lane system similar to the one in
Valdez: an "in" lane, an "out" lane and a noman's lane between. For
reasons that have never been fully explained, the Amoco Cadiz was
outside the inlane boundary that morning, far to the right, toward
France. Bardari said later he moved right to avoid a small tanker
coming out of the Channel in the wrong lane, an incident no one else on
board remembered, according to Chelminski. Bardari also said one of the
crew made a navigation error.
Whatever the reasons, it was a bad time to be in the wrong place.
At 9:45 a.m., as enormous waves pounded the ship,
washing over the decks, and winds gusted at 40 miles per hour,
the hydraulic steering system failed.
Suddenly, the Amoco Cadiz was adrift out of control and headed toward
shore 10 miles away.
It took nearly 12 hours for the giant ship to float onto the Portsall
Rocks, a shoal so treacherous even small boats avoid it. Why no one
figured out how to stop the tanker's helpless drift toward disaster is
a question that has been examined for more than 10 years. Every action
that Bardari took or didn't take has been criticized by someone. Every
move made or not made by a German tugboat, Pacific, which hurried to
the scene and tried to tow the tanker to safety was reviewed by experts
and challenged in court.
Among the questions: Why did Bardari fail to issue a general SOS until he was
actually aground? Why did he haggle over the cost of the tug and did
the squabbling between him and the tugboat captain slow down rescue
efforts? And what kind of instructions did Bardari receive from his
Amoco bosses during the many radiophone calls placed that day between
the ship and corporate headquarters in Chicago?
What seems certain is that it took Bardari too long to understand that his
ship was in mortal danger. He didn't realize the pitching tanker was
too heavy to be towed by one tug. No one realized it because no one had
ever tried to tow a tanker that heavy.
During the long March day, the tide came and went, the current changed and
plan after plan was debated, but nothing stopped the drift toward
shore. By the time the inevitable became obvious, no other boats were
close enough to get there before time ran out. At 9:04 p.m., with the
Pacific's line still attached, the Amoco Cadiz floated on a high spring
tide onto the killer rocks and split in two.
Most sources say the ship did not split in two until the 24th.
The oil spilled first in floods, then in lessening amounts for nearly two
weeks. On the 12th day, the French Navy blew up what remained of the
broken hull with depth charges to release any trapped residue that
might become a problem in the future.
The cleanup began quickly, and ran into problems now familiar to Alaskans.
Booms were used to protect estuaries and mariculture facilities, "but a
combination of improper deployment, strong currents and rising tides
made the booms ineffective," according to a synopsis by oilspill
historian Richard Golob.
"Bureaucratic confusion reigned," wrote Chelminski. "Later investigation showed that
(the French oilspill plan) involved no less than eight ministries, each
one having its own priorities and jealously guarded prerogatives, and
was capable of dealing with a slick of no more than 18.5 kilometers (11 miles)."
Skimmers provided by the government were ineffective; pig manure pumps, offered
by local farmers, worked, as did shovels, rakes and elbow grease. "The
less sophisticated the equipment, the greater was the success,"
The French government and local communities conducted and paid for most of the clean up.
Fisheries along the Brittany coast took about three years to recover, according
to Golob's report. Some species never came back and tar balls still
wash up on the beach now and then.
According to a 1983 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, the tourism industry along the Brittany coast lost
between $28 million and $60 million. NOAA valued the lost tanker at
from $15 million to $24 million and the lost cargo at another $24
million. And the list goes on.
The French government paid $12 million to fishermen and others to offset
their losses. The government has yet to be reimbursed by anyone.
Amoco's position is straightforward: The company is not responsible for the
failure of the steering system, and therefore has no obligation to pay
for the damage caused by the spill.
What can Alaskans learn from the wreck of the Amoco Cadiz? According to
Joseph Pizzurro of Curtis, Mallet, Provost, the New York law firm
representing the affected French towns, Alaska can start by being
grateful that the Exxon Valdez was an American owned ship.
"Exxon is a United States oil company that spilled oil in the United States
and has got a real problem from a public relations standpoint that
Amoco never had," Pizzurro said. "It made a tremendous difference in
the way the two companies have reacted. It will continue to make a
Consider what the people of Portsall faced when they woke up on March 17 to find
oil at their door: The Amoco Cadiz was owned on paper by Amoco
Transport Co., a Liberian corporation with its principal place of
business in Bermuda. Amoco Transport's owner was Standard Oil, an
American corporation. The crew was Italian. The builders were Spanish.
The cargo belonged to the Royal Dutch| Shell group. The victim, France,
got oiled because the tanker just happened to be passing that country
when its steering failed. So, who was responsible?
"Amoco took a very early strong, adverse, sort of a "screw you guys' attitude
toward the whole thing and has maintained that till today," Pizzurro said.
In the lawsuits that followed, France, the fishermen and the coastal
communities sued Amoco and the Spanish shipbuilders, Astilleros
Espanoles, which designed the hydraulic steering mechanism that failed;
Amoco sued the German tugboat, France and Astilleros. Amoco accused the
French of failing to prevent the spill, although Bardari never asked
for help, then of botching the cleanup.
Alaskans can also learn not to assume a tanker is well designed or well
maintained just because its owners have $23 million invested in it.
In 1984, Judge Frank McGarr of the U.S. District court in Chicago found
Amoco and the Spanish shipbuilders responsible for the wreck of the
Cadiz. The steering system was not designed to be strong enough for
such a heavy tanker in such heavy seas, the judge said. And even if the
design was good, Astilleros Espanoles did not build to specifications.
For instance, the hydraulic steering mechanism blew apart when five of six
half-inch thick studs holding a flange failed.
The studs should have been three-quarters of an inch thick.
Amoco was found liable largely because of its dismal maintenance record, and
because it knew from the first voyage of the Cadiz that the steering
mechanism was flawed and failed to repair it, according to McGarr.
Descriptions of the steering gear room, most taken from reports by
Amoco's own inspectors, called it damp and dirty, with dripping oil and
leaking steam pipes. McGarr found that Amoco failed to change the oil,
remove sludge and clean the filters. Hydraulic fluid leaked out, air
leaked in and there wasn't enough pressure to hold the rudder against
the storming sea.
Amoco originally scheduled the ship for dry docking and maintenance once a
year. Before the Cadiz was launched, Amoco changed the maintenance
period, first to once every 18 months, then once every two years and,
in 1976, once every 21|2 years. The number of days in dry dock was
reduced from 14 to eight. In fact, the Cadiz was drydocked for repairs
only once in four years, the judge found.
The lack of maintenance was a deliberate decision, made "in order to
realize a cost savings of $1.25 million in shipyard costs and $200,000
per year in offhire losses," McGarr concluded. The two VLCCs used by
Amoco to move its own oil were given regular maintenance, he noted.
But, by mid1977, Amoco's goal was to operate the Cadiz, on longterm
lease to Shell, "throughout the remainder of her charter with no down time."
Amoco plans to appeal the judgment once it is made final, said Mike Thompson,
the company's media director in Chicago. "These are not final decisions," he said.
In preliminary findings issued in 1988 and earlier this year, McGarr
awarded the spill victims damages totaling $117.5 million, in most
cases awarding specific victims only a fraction of what they claimed.
He noted a tendency toward exaggeration and a lack of evidence
supporting claimed costs. In at least one case, the judge noted there
was double billing the same expense was submitted to Amoco that was
presented to the owners of another tanker that spilled oil in the same
area two years later.
He also penalized the government of France for limiting the use of
dispersants to water deeper than 50 meters (165 feet). McGarr said
there was no scientific basis for the decision, which "seems to have
been solely the result of pressure from ecology and nature groups."
No damages were awarded to anyone for general damage to the environment.
"Basically the court took the position that it was impossible to
determine who had a property interest, a right in the ecology," said
Pizzurro, the lawyer for the damaged French communities. "There was no
one who had a right that could be remedied, so it's just too bad."
McGarr based his decisions on French law,
but according to Pizzurro, it's not that different in effect from American law.
Astilleros Espanoles, the shipbuilder, refused to accept U.S. jurisdiction and did
not defend itself at trial. The company reportedly has no assets in the
U.S., which leaves Amoco holding the bag for all the damages eventually
awarded. They presumably will go after Astilleros in Spain.
"Amoco intends to pursue their rights against the Spanish shipbuilders,"
said Thompson, the company spokesman.
Bardari also skipped the trial. With the exception of an early hearing in
London by the Liberian government, he refused to answer any questions
on the grounds that he faced possible criminal prosecution in France in
connection with the wreck. In general, a person charged with a criminal
offense cannot be required to testify in any inquiry until the charges
have been tried and appealed.
No one prosecuted Bardari and, despite his absence, McGarr absolved him of responsibility
for the wreck of the Amoco Cadiz.