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The agony of the Atlantic Empress, a large sinking oil tanker in flames. Trinidad Tobago.

On July 19, 1979, two VLCC tankers collided off Tobago in the Caribbean Sea. The collision killed 27 people and spilled some 280,000 tons of crude oil, the 5th largest oil spill on record.


One of most detailed sources (written by Mobil Oil experts) (5) explains that "at 1900 hours on July 19, 1979, the 288,000-deadweight-ton (dwt) Atlantic Empress and the 207,000-dwt Aegean Captain collided in the Caribbean Sea. In the fiery aftermath of the accident, 27 crewmen lost their lives. There was a strong possibility that a total of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil would be spilled; this would have been the largest spill to that time. Nearby islands with their tourist beaches and coral reefs were threatened. And yet, even though the Atlantic Empress eventually sank after burning for 14 days, no oil came ashore and no indications of any environmental damage were observed.". Most of the oil in the  Aegean Captain was saved after the ship was towed to port in Cuaraçao, while the Atlantic Empress was towed outwards from the place of the accident (at about 18 miles northeast of Tobago) towards the island of Barbados. Great efforts were made by salvage crews to save its cargo but after two weeks at sea and many explosions and fires, it sunk on 3rd August. A consequence of this terrible accident is that over 250,000 tons of crude oil were burned and were spilled to the ocean. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:The agony of the Atlantic Empress, a large sinking oil tanker in flames. Trinidad Tobago.
Country:Trinidad and Tobago
State or province:Tobago
Location of conflict:North-east of Tobago
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Atlantic Empress was a Greek oil tanker that in 1979 collided with the oil tanker Aegean Captain in the Caribbean, and eventually sank, having created the fifth largest oil spill on record and the largest ship-based spill having spilled approximately 287,000 metric tonnes of crude oil into the Caribbean Sea. It was built at the Odense Staalskibsværft shipyard in Odense, Denmark, and launched on 16 February 1974.(2)

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Level of Investment for the conflictive projectapprox. 270,000,000 + 45,000,000
Start of the conflict:19/07/1979
Company names or state enterprises:Mobil Oil from United States of America - Mobil Oil owned the Atlantic Empress’ cargo
Relevant government actors:Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Tobago Red Cross cared for survivors
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Oil spills, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
Other Health impactsThe explosions and fires killed 29 people
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Atlantic Empress was lost, with its cargo gone in flames or sunk in the sea. No careful scientific reporting was done of the damage. Human lives were lost by the initial explosion and fires. A detailed account is given in source (5).
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries


International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings (1981) 1981 (1): 429–435.
[click to view]

(4) In history: Tobago, site of the world's largest oil tanker spill

Loop News July 19, 2019
[click to view]

(2) Tom Soter, Supertankers collide in Caribbean. October 1979.
[click to view]

A still optimistic view in The Washington Post, by 26 July 1979. Salvage Crew Defies Fire in Attempt to Save Oil Tanker. By Ken RingleJuly 26, 1979
[click to view]

(6). The world's worst oil disaster happened off Tobago 1979 tanker collision sparks blaze, huge oil spill off Tobago. Richard Charan May 28, 2018 . (a report of 2018 written in Tobago, recalling the facts).
[click to view]

(7). The New York Times, Tankers Collide in Atlantic and Spill Oil.

By Joseph B. Treaster. July 21, 1979
[click to view]

(1) Atlantic Express. Shipwreck Blog.
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

(8) POTENTIAL COSTS OF AN OFFSHORE ACCIDENT. “Safety of offshore oil & gas Impact Assessment Annex I” working paper from the European Commission, published in 2011
[click to view]

ITOPF. ATLANTIC EMPRESS, West Indies, 1979. Case study.
[click to view]

Other comments:This is one of the main oil spills around the world included in the list of 14 compiled by Laura Moss, updated January 2022,
Meta information
Last update05/08/2022
Conflict ID:6106
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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