The night is dark, the wind is blowing, the sea rumbles: the Amoco Cadiz, an oil tanker with 227,000 tons of crude oil, is slashing close to the Brittany coast, causing one of the worst oil spills in history . It was 40 years ago, March 16, 1978.
"When we saw this giant there, all lights on, at first we did not even realize," recalls Jean-Yves Letard, restaurateur since 32 years in Ploudalmézeau, on which depends the small port Finistère of Portsall face which ran aground the Amoco.
The Liberian tanker, recent but poorly maintained, transports to Rotterdam its cargo of crude oil loaded into the Persian Gulf. As the storm rumbled, he suffered a damage bar. After lengthy negotiations with a German tug and several unsuccessful attempts to tow, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground at 22H00 just two kilometers from the rugged coastline of Portsall.
On board the monster 334 meters long, 34 men and a woman. They will all be saved, despite the lack of information available to the authorities. "The only indication we had was + an oil tanker was stranded off Portsall, go see what you can do +", told AFP Michel Le Gall, now 67, former chief ship aboard the Super Hornet of the Navy arrived first on the scene.
"The sea was black, the boat we did not see it", remembers Yves Dagorn, 71 years old, co-pilot of this mission, explaining having spotted the tanker thanks to the lighthouse of the German tugboat. "We had to find where the crew was, if it was not in the sea, in the oil …"
aerial view of the beaches of Portsall, Finistere, covered with oil after the sinking of the Acomo Cadiz, the March 20, 1978 (AFP / Archives – JEAN-PIERRE PREVEL)
"The lighthouse illuminated the left wing of the Amoco and there, they were all piled one behind the other", segue Guy Le Nabat, 70 years , dropped aboard from the helicopter. "Everyone wanted to be hoisted first," he recalls.
-Silent and Apocalypse Silence-
After recovering some of the wrecked, the Super Hornet, to the maximum of its capacity, is forced to 'go lay down his passengers, to the surprise of Guy Le Nabat. "It was the first time that I was left like this, plan.The diver always leaves with his crew," says the former Navy, at the time lacking any means of communication with the aircraft
"All of a sudden, it was a silence, but a heavy silence, there was crackling, it was cold and then we slipped everywhere because of oil sprays," he recalls. The Super Hornet, preceded by a second helicopter, will eventually recover the last survivors.
"The Amoco Cadiz is a natural disaster, but there were no casualties, we managed to save all the Dagorn's former pilot "
Gradually, in contact with the pitfalls, the ship breaks up and its tanks begin to empty: in the early morning, while the pungent smell of oil penetrates into the homes for miles around, the vision is apocalyptic.
Cleaning teams fight against the pollution that hit the Breton coast following the sinking of the tanker Amoco Cadiz facing the port of Portsall, Finistere, March 16, 1978 (AFP / Archives – JEAN-PIERRE PREVEL)
"When we saw the consequences … it was dramatic!" recalls Jean-Yves Letard, thirteen years old at the time. "There was fuel everywhere, the birds fell into the water and could not come out any more, it was abominable."
Driven by winds and currents, the viscous magma soiled some 360 kilometers of coastline, not to mention thousands of crude pancakes scattered far beyond. Between 19,000 and 37,000 birds die.
-Milliers of Volunteers-
For three months, 35,000 soldiers and thousands of volunteers from all over the country are tirelessly cleaning up rocks and soiled beaches, evacuating thousands of wastes, first of all with simple shovels and buckets or slurry manure from farmers.
Less than 10% of the oil will be recovered. The rest will evaporate or disperse in the sea at the mercy of currents and tides.
The worst accidents of oil tankers (AFP – Simon MALFATTO) [19659008Heavywastesareprogressivelyevacuatedandtreatedbuttheotherslessdensearestoredinholessometimescoveredwithsimpletarpaulins
40 years of oil spills off the coast of Brittany produced hundreds of thousands of tons of waste, tens of thousands of which are still in the Finistère and Côtes d'Armor, in more or less tight pits , assures the Robin des Bois Association.
In addition to the environmental disaster, the economic consequences of the incident include 1,300 fishermen who remain on land for weeks at a time and nearly 7,000 tons of oysters are destroyed. Harvests of seaweed and shellfish are severely affected, as is the tourist season.
-A giant attacked in court –
The anger of the Bretons is keen. Quickly, 90 elected members, led by the former senator-mayor of Ploudalmézeau who died in 2014, Alphonse Arzel, unite in a mixed union, which later became Vigipol and has since been responsible for defending the interests of local authorities in the face of risks arising from maritime transport. At the time, the idea was to attack US justice, despite the reluctance of the French government, the Standard Oil Of Indiana, world oil giant and owner of the Amoco.
"It was a little naive, as we said, when we see who we were," recalls Joseph Patinec, former first deputy Ploudalmézeau. "One of the great victories is that they have gone hand in hand, and without failing to the end," he says.
After 14 years of struggle, the American company is recognized as sole responsible and must pay the equivalent of 35 million euros to Breton municipalities and 160 million to the state, which eventually joined the action of the mixed union: the "polluter pays" principle is finally applied.
disaster will lead to the gradual introduction of measures to reduce the risk of accidents and to acquire better weapons against pollution: a new Polmar plan is adopted, a navigation rail is created off Ouessant, a powerful tugboat is permanently assigned to the assistance of ships circulating in this rail, etc.
Could the disaster happen again? "No, the tragedy of the Amoco will not happen again in 2018," says AFP the maritime prefect of the Atlantic, Admiral Emmanuel de Oliveira, noting that "we could certainly improve security large ships ", while global shipping traffic is steadily increasing.