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Ixtoc 1

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SpillsIxtoc 1

On 3 June 1979, in the Gulf of Mexico (Bay of Campeche), some 80 km from Carmen town, Ixtoc 1’s offshore drilling rig, set up by the Perforaciones Marinas del Golfo on behalf of the national company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), was destroyed by the blast of an oil eruption. A fire broke out. This type of accident is quite rare, although it is not one of a kind. Such eruptions have been known to affect Ekofiske Bravo’s oil rig in the Norwegian sea in 1977, Laban island’s well (Iran) in 1971 and Santa Barbara’s well N° 21 (California) in 1969. In each of these cases, the oil eruption was stopped within ten days.

Ixtoc 1’s oil rig on fire. Source IMO.
Ixtoc 1’s oil rig on fire (Source IMO)


This eruption lasted far longer. It was only stopped on 23 March 1980, after 295 days, during the which the oil spurt had been reduced first from 4,200 – 4,300 tonnes/day to 1,400 – 1,500 tonnes/day, thanks to the digging of freeing pipes which lowered pressure in the implicated well.

The total quantity of oil spilled at sea will never be known exactly. The more cautious estimations suggest some 470,000 tonnes were spilled, while in the worst case scenario it could be as much as 1,500,000 tonnes. Between half and a third of this oil burned, causing a vast atmospheric pollution. The remaining part spread over the Gulf of Mexico in the form of drifting slicks.

The widespread use of dispersants, the settlement of containment booms and the mobilization of all PEMEX’s recovery means were insuffisant when faced with such a spill. Oil slicks reached the coast around Vera Cruz, Tampico, Campeche, Laguna Madre and even as far as Texas.

Shrimp nurseries, mangroves, beaches and seabirds were oiled. Fishing and tourist activities were affected.

No detailed report on the response operations was published. An estimation of the total cost was made at 1.5 billion dollars, of which 0.4 for the response expenses and 1.1 for the damage. However neither the Mexican nor the American authorities produced either a scientific or financial report of the accident.

As for the Amoco Cadiz’s oil spill, which took place in France the previous year, Ixtoc 1’s catastrophe led to co-ordination between operational agencies and research institutes about a global study of the impact. A committee managed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Authority (NOAA) was settled to assess the impact on the whole northwest region of the Gulf of Mexico, including human health, professional and leisure fishing activities, mammals, birds, endangered species, as well as economic activities.

Name: Ixtoc 1

Date: 3 June 1979

Location: Bay of Campêche (Mexico)


Accident area: Bay of Campeche, Mexico

Structure type: oil rig

Type of pollutant: crude oil

Quantity spilled: 470,000 tonnes




More than 4,000 samples were collected and tested to quantify the extent of the oil from Ixtoc 1's role in the overall pollution of the Gulf. This task was made difficult by the fact that the oil tanker Burmah Agate ran aground and caught fire off the coast of Galveston in November 1979, which brought further pollution into an area already hit by a number of disasters.

Slight alterations in taste in industrial fishing shrimps were reported, but without any quantifiable impact on the resources and their capture. Slight variations were detected among the sea birds population. No long term impact was quantified in the areas next to the estuary.

The study represented more than a demonstration of precise impacts, and revealed, for future reference, that impact management, execution and funding procedures must be established before an accident. According to American experts, this procedure should also include fixing a value in dollars for each type of ecological damage.





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