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Three-ship collision causes oil spill

A rare collision of three ships in Tampa Bay, Florida, results in a spill of 336,000 gallons of fuel oil on this day in 1993. Fortunately, a combination of favorable weather conditions and preparedness kept the damage to a minimum.

It was about 6 a.m. when two fuel barges heading into Tampa Bay’s harbor and one phosphate freighter heading out collided. The collision caused a fire on the Maritrans barge Ocean 255, crippling the ship, which was carrying 8 million gallons of gas and diesel fuel. Although it took nearly 16 hours to put out, no one onboard was killed. However, more than 300,000 gallons of oil were dumped into Tampa Bay.

This incident marked the first use of a computerized trajectory model to track an oil spill. Using data on wind, weather and the movement of tides, the extent of a spill could be predicted for the first time. Despite the limits of the data, the trajectory model proved to be accurate over a six-hour time period. On this day, the model showed that the tides and wind were pushing the massive spill away from the shore.

While the oil remained at sea, response teams prepared for the inevitable time when the spill would reach the coast. Crews with loaders and shovels were present to pick up the black oil as it hit the Pinellas County beaches. Luckily, the oil mostly missed the thick mangrove forests on the coast–these would have been far more difficult to clean. Additionally, local residents had just completed training by the Pinellas Seabird Rehabilitation Center (PSRC) that prepared them for oil spills. Three thousand volunteers working for the PSRC saved virtually all of the native wildlife that was affected by the disaster.

This oil spill was the first major one following the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. New federal legislation that had been passed in the aftermath of the Valdez disaster assisted in the effort to recover millions of dollars from the ship owners to pay for the cleanup efforts.

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