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On 7 March 1991, the oil tanker the Vistabella, registered in Trinidad and Tobago, without any pollution insurance, sank 600 m deep, 15 miles southwest of Nevis island, one of the two major islands which are part of the small Caribbean state of Saint Kitts and Nevis. She was transporting 2,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

The quantity of fuel spilled when she sank is unknown, as is the quantity that remained onboard. Winds and currents carried the surfacing pollutant northwards. Despite the fact that the French Navy spread dispersants on the slicks, the huge number of islands situated in this area meant that this modest pollution became the world record for the largest number of countries struck by a single oil spill. 5 jurisdictions were affected: first Saint Kitts and Nevis, then the Saba islands and Saint Martin (Dutch West Indies), Saint Bartholomew (French West Indies), the British Virgin islands, and finally the American Virgin islands and Porto Rico (USA).

No overall report about this pollution incident was compiled. Each country managed its response and damages independently. Saint-Kitts and Nevis had no established organisation to turn to. The Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, members of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC Fund), called upon this organisation to obtain repayment for the French Navy intervention, the British Virgin islands authorities oil response expenses, as well as the cleaning of oiled ships and fishing boats.

The French government obtained 1.2 million euros for the cleaning operations, for a claim which rose to 1.4 million euros. The countries depending on the USA managed their damages in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act for a total of 3.5 million US dollars.

Name: Vistabella

Date: 7 March 1991

Location: Caribbean Sea

Accident area: Nevis Island, St Christopher-Nevis

Cause of spill: damage to ship

Quantity transported: 2,000 tonnes

Type of pollutant: heavy fuel oil

Ship type: barge

Flag: Trinidad and Tobago

The IOPC Fund undertook legal proceedings against the barge’s ship owner and his insurers. A first judgement rendered in 1996 granted the fund with full repayment of the paid amount and a judgement on appeal from 23 March 1998 confirmed the insurers implication.


Last update: April 2006

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