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The Spill

As the result of the failure of an oil storage tank managed by the Refineria Panamá (a subsidiary of Texaco, Inc.), located on Payardi Island (Lat. 9″ 24′ N, Long. 79° 49′ W), about 12 km northeast of the City of Colón, an estimated 50,000 barrels of medium-weight crude oil spilled into the Caribbean coast of Panama in the area known as Bahía Las Minas on April 27, 1986. The volume of the oil spill was greater than that of any other reported at the time near coral reefs and mangroves in the tropical Americas, such as the tankers Epic Colocotronis (1975) and Peck Slip (1978) spills near Puerto Rico. It was larger than the 1969 spill from the barge Florida near Woods Hole in Massachusetts, but smaller than the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989.

The Consequences

By September 1986, the oil had contaminated coral reefs, algal flats, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, small estuaries, and sand beaches. The nearby biological reserve of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) known as the Galeta Marine Laboratory received substantial amounts of oil. The existence of 15 years of extensive environmental monitoring data at the reserve, and other detailed information about the area before the spill, provided a rare opportunity for examining the ecological effects of the oil spill.


Shortly after the spill, a grant to study the effects of the spill was received from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the United States Department of the Interior. Data were then collected from May of 1986 to October of 1991 and the results of the study were published as a technical report and as an executive summary of the MMS. A preliminary Short-Term Assessment of the Bahia Las Minas Oil Spill was published in June 1987. (For more background information click here)

Following the initial report, a long-term study of the effects of the oil spill was undertaken by STRI. The results of this study were published in a 129-page Executive Summary and in a two-part Technical Report, totaling 1017 pages. They describe the weather, sea conditions, and topography affecting oil deposition during the disaster; the spill’s hydrocarbon chemistry; the effects of the spill on the different ecosystems present in the area and their organisms, and the patterns of damage and recovery of mangroves, plants and animals in seagrass communities.

Previous Incident

The 1986 oil spill was not the first large oil spill to affect the area surrounding the Galeta Marine Laboratory. On 13 December 1968, the 35,000-barrel oil tanker SS Witwater broke apart about three miles from Laboratory and released approximately 20,000 barrels of Bunker C and marine diesel oil which spread over the shoreline. The results from research following the 1968 spill were published in Survey of Marine Communities in Panama and Experiments with Oil by Charles Birkeland, Amada A. Reimer, Joyce Redemske Young, May 1976. (Click here to download).

2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

Please visit the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal page on the Gulf Oil Spill