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The Katina-P Oil Spill

By James Donahue

The 780-foot oil tanker Katina-P was an aging 26-year-old vessel, still operating on the open seas under Greek ownership in April, 1992 when a storm on the Indian Ocean off Mozambique caused extensive damage and tore away a hull plate.

The ship began leaking crude oil and appeared in danger of sinking, so the crew deliberately drove the tanker on a sand bar six miles off Maputo, in the Mozambique Channel, in the hope of saving the rest of the cargo if not the vessel.

Thus began one of the worst oil spills in that part of the world.

The tanker was laden with 66,700 tons of crude, making its way from Venezuela to the United Arab Emirates, when the storm struck. The immediate release of about 3,500 tons of oil was reported.

A tug, the John Ross was dispatched from South Africa. The tug managed to pull the disabled tanker back into deep water and began towing it out to the open sea where plans were being made to pump the rest of the Katina-P’s cargo of oil into awaiting tankers. But the old ship buckled amidships before it arrived at the transfer site and sank in 6,600 feet of water off the coast of Mozambique.

The spilled oil was carried by the Agulhas current southward into Maputo Bay, the estuaries of Incomati and Matola Rivers, mangrove swamps in Montanhana and Catembe, the beaches of Catembe, Polana, Costa do Sol, Bairro dos Pescadores and Xefinas Island, and all along the coast. The environmental impact was disastrous.

Ironically, the Katina-P had been declared unseaworthy while anchored at Rio de Janeiro, and was ordered to steam that spring from that port to Bangladesh to be broken up. But while crossing the Atlantic the master received orders to turn about and load a last load of fuel oil in Venezuela, destined for Fujirah, in the United Arab Emirates.

That cargo ended up spilled all along the African coast. By comparison, the Exon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast dumped an estimated 90,000 metric tons of crude oil.

The only casualty of the Katina-P disaster was the ship’s cat, which ran off and could not be found by the crew before they were forced to abandon the wreck.

The US Coast Guard, NOAA and EPA assisted Mozambique in the massive cleanup. Several thousand individuals, many of them local authority staff and volunteers, manually cleaned the beaches.

The seafood caught in the area was declared unsafe for human consumption for years afterward.