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A history of spills

The Mediterranean sea includes every drop of water enclosed in the boundaries of western and southern Europe, Anatolia, the Levant and northern Africa, connected to the Atlantic ocean through the strait of Gibraltar. Despite it’s size (less than 1% of the ocean’s surface), it’s home to 8% of marine biodiversity and creates habitats that attract tourists by the millions, year after year.

On the occasion of yet another environmental disaster in our beloved sea, let’s take a look back at historic fiascos. The stars of this show are various ships, carriers and facilities that, one way or another, managed to leak their greasy contents in the basin. Although many more examples exist, I’m sure, these are just a few of the most infamous accidents readily found on the web.

Heavy Band of Oil. Image by NOAA’s National Ocean Service from Creative Commons.

1980 Irenes Serenade

While at anchor in a refuelling station in Navarino Bay, Greece, the tanker suffered an explosion, and because it was full of crude oil, the ship and the sea around it were engulfed in flames for 14 hours, before eventually sinking. Human lives were lost, while a total of 100,000 tonnes were spilled into the sea. Large-scale environmental crisis was averted, with local authorities prioritizing cleanup of sandy beaches and recreational areas, in order to prevent considerable damage to the tourist industry.

1991 MT Haven

A routine operation of a crude oil tanker went south when an explosion occurred, causing further blasts and fires to erupt. The wreckage was burning for 70 hours because of the contents it was carrying and eventually completely sank off the coast of Genoa, Italy. It was one of the worst pollution incidents for the region, releasing some 35,000 tons of heavy crude oil. Several miles of Italian and French coastlines were covered in thick layers of oil. Human lives were lost and hundreds of thousands of birds relying on foraged food from shorelines were killed directly or indirectly due to the spill.

1994 Nassia Incident

A cargo ship collided with a crude oil tanker in the Bosporus strait, resulting in 95,000 tonnes of crude oil being released through a crack in the vessel. This amount of fuel caused explosions and many human lives were lost, while the sea was contaminated with oil slicks. These either dissipated or remained visible and were removed by floating booms and skimmers.

2006 Jiyeh Power Plant Oil Spill

This oil spill was a result of regional conflict between Israel and Lebanon, with extensive bombing from the Israeli air force at the Lebanese power plant site releasing 30,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. A third of the coastline of Lebanon and a part of the Syrian coast were affected by oil slicks and while cleanup efforts were conducted, underwater surveys revealed oil sediment embedded in the seabed. Hundreds of thousands of fish, birds and the endangered Mediterranean green turtles have been compromised.

2017 Sinking of Agia Zoni II

The oil tanker started taking in water while at anchor near the port of Piraeus, eventually sinking in the Saronic Gulf, while loaded with 2,200 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 370 tonnes of marine gas oil (MGO). Local authorities managed to seal the tanker, but oil slicks contaminated the shores of Salamina and southern Athens.

2018 Corsica Oil Spill

A Tunisian ferry and a Cypriot containership collided north of Cape Corsica, breaching the carrier’s tanks and releasing about 600 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and causing 3-mile long trail of pollution near the island of Corsica. French and Italian authorities worked together in efforts to contain the spillage and carry out cleanup operations, aided by satellite and modelling technologies, while no casualties were reported.

2021 East Mediterrannean spill

The first spill of 2021 occurred in February, with more than 1,000 tonnes of black tar washing up on the shorelines of Israel, spanning more than 160 kilometres, causing the country’s worst ecological disaster. Fish, turtles and sea creatures have been affected, while authorities have largely cleaned up the sandy areas, leaving rocky habitats in need of further cleaning. So far, the only information on the origin of the spill is reported as the presence of ten vessels in the vicinity, however the culprit has not been identified. Meanwhile, reputable journalism has exposed shady deals between Israel and the UAE, involving a company that has been implicated in previous ecological tragedies, spilling millions of tonnes of crude oil in a nature reserve and nearly eradicating Eilat’s coral reefs in the 1970s due to a series of spills. Concerns on the future of Israel’s coral reefs and coastal habitats are on the rise and it seems like political agendas are clashing on how to handle pipelines in the area.

2021 Syrian power plant spill

A fault in a power plant located on the coasts of Syria is to blame for 20,000 tonnes of fuel oil leaking into the eastern Mediterranean, in late August of 2021. This is the second major incident with oil spilled in the region and while it’s too early to properly assess the ecological footpring, we are already observing the first impacts on marine life. The spill is close to the coastlines of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus and its size is compared to that of New York city. At the time of writing this post, the slick’s trajectory is undetermined, since it may be dissolved and carried away by sea currents. Nevertheless, officials suggest that oil has already been deposited at the seabed, a potentially catastrophic development. At the origin site, Syrian authorities seem to be responding through weak cleanup efforts.

Please, don’t forget, these are just the big headlines, the ones that couldn’t be covered up or hushed down. Oil and waste is being spilled (accidentally or not) into the Mediterranean on a daily basis; apparently we’ve been swimming in diluted oil since they started transporting it. You can find more information on the estimated annual spillages here.

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