IT’S EXACTLY 27 years since Wales’ worst ecological disaster – single hull oil tanker hit rocks in the middle of the channel, holing her below the waterline.
On 15 February 1996, the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground as it entered the Milford Haven Waterway.
Six days later, the tanker re-floated and was towed into the harbour. In the days between its grounding and towing, the oil tanker spilled 72,000 tons of crude oil along the Pembrokeshire Coastline, within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
It was a Thursday morning the oil tanker was en route to the Texaco oil refinery when she became grounded on mid-channel rocks at St. Ann’s Head. Over the course of a week, she spilt 72,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. The spill occurred within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – one of Europe’s most important and sensitive wildlife and marine conservation areas.
Sailing against the outgoing tide and in calm conditions, at 20:07 GMT the ship was pushed off course by the current and became grounded after hitting rocks in the middle of the channel.
The collision punctured her starboard hull causing oil to pour out into the sea. Tugs from Milford Haven Port Authority were sent to the scene and attempted to pull the vessel free and re-float her. During the initial rescue attempts, she detached several times from the tugs and grounded repeatedly – each time slicing open new sections of her hull and releasing more oil.
A full scale emergency plan was activated by the authorities. News of the grounding was first reported at 21:18 on the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News – just over an hour after she ran aground.
Over the next few days, efforts to pull the vessel from the rocks continued.
Assisting the many local vessels, tugboats were drafted in from the ports of Dublin, Liverpool and Plymouth to assist with the salvage operation.
The tanker ran aground very close to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm – both national nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Areas and home to Manx shearwaters, Atlantic puffins, guillemots, razorbills, great cormorants, kittiwakes, European storm-petrels, common shags and Eurasian oystercatchers.
Birds at sea were hit hard during the early weeks of the spill, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Pembrokeshire grey seal population didn’t appear to be affected too much and impacts to subtidal wildlife were limited. However, much damage was caused to shorelines affected by bulk oil. Shore seaweeds and invertebrates were killed in large quantities. Mass strandings of cockles and other shellfish occurred on sandy beaches. Rock pool fish were also affected. However, a range of tough shore species were seen to survive exposure to bulk oil and lingering residues.
A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford Haven. According to the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), over 70% of released guillemots died within 14 days. Just 3% survived two months and only 1% survived a year.
The Pembrokeshire coast is home to common porpoises and bottlenose dolphins.
The effects of the oil and chemical pollution on these species remains unknown. Significant numbers of both species were recorded in the waters off the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve during the spring and summer of 1996.
The main containment and dispersement of the oil slick at sea was completed within six weeks. However, the removal of oil on shore took over a year until the late spring of 1997. Small amounts of oil were still found beneath the sand on sheltered beaches and in rock pools in 1999 – three years after the spill.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
The effects of the spill were not as bad as initially predicted. This was due in part to the time of year when the spill occurred.
In February, many migratory animals had not yet arrived back in Pembrokeshire for breeding.
Along with stormy weather which helped break-up and naturally disperse the oil, the effect on wildlife would have been much worse if the spill had occurred just a month later.
The spill would undoubtedly have been catastrophic for both the environment and local economy if it had occurred during the summer months.
Much of the Pembrokeshire coastline recovered relatively quickly.
By 2001, the affected marine wildlife population levels had more-or-less returned to normal.
There was an immediate ban on fishing off the coast of Pembrokeshire and south Carmarthenshire which had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry.
The ban remained in place for several months and was lifted in stages.
Many local fishermen received financial compensation for the loss of income due to the ban.
The spill occurred just a few weeks before the Easter break when many holidaymakers would be visiting the area.
Some sheltered beaches and tidal estuaries were still covered with oil, but the main tourist locations of Tenby, Saundersfoot, Pendine, Manorbier and Bosherston were superficially cleaned.
A large clean-up operation began as soon as the Sea Empress started spilling oil.
Volunteers and paid hands alike, came together to restore the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire.
In the immediate days and weeks that followed, one thousand people worked around the clock to rescue oiled birds and remove oil from beaches using suction tankers, pressure washers and oil-absorbing scrubbers.
The main clean-up operation lasted several weeks and continued on a reduced scale for over a year.
PORT AUTHORITY FINED £4 MILLION
Almost three years after the spill in January 1999, Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) was fined a record £4m after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement.
The cost of the clean-up operation was estimated to be £60m. When the effects to the economy and environment are taken into account, the final cost is estimated to have been twice that, at £120m.
SHIPS BAD LUCK CONTINUES
While the cause of the initial grounding was found to be due to pilot error, it seems the vessel, even under new ownership, could not escape her run of bad luck. While attempting to dock for scrapping in Bangladesh she was ruptured again, this time by a sunken vessel.
She was renamed a further four times before her final demise, known as MV Front Spirit for a while before being sold under the name MV Ocean Opal, to Chinese buyers.
They used her as a floating storage and offloading unit from 2004. In 2010, she was converted in Shanghai into a bulk carrier, and re-flagged as the Panamanian registered MV Welwind. In 2012, she was renamed for a fifth time: MV Wind 3 and on June 3 that year the 274-metre long vessel was brought to Chittagong in Bangladesh for dismantling at the Shitakunda ship breaking yard.
On the way to the yard the ship developed a crack in one side of its engine room following a collision with a sunken ship, Hang Ro Bong, when she was attempting to anchor at the B (Bravo) anchorage of the port.
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
In 2016 former local MP Nick Ainger said that the lessons from the disaster had not been learned
He told BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme that the scrapping of the UK’s emergency towing vessel fleet showed lessons had not been learned 20 years on- The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it was felt the shipping industry should fund such a service.
Mr Ainger said: “We now have a position, 20 years after the Sea Empress, 23 after the Braer, where we have no emergency towing vehicles stationed around our coast.
“Ironically, other countries in Europe, in Spain, in France, Germany, Norway have got government-financed emergency towing vessels.
“We, with our huge coastline with all the shipping that we have coming not only in and out of Milford Haven, but around our shores from the North Sea carrying crude oil, we haven’t got a government-supported emergency towing vessel.
“I think that lesson should be re-learned very, very quickly before we have another disaster.”
An MCA spokeswoman said: “The government believes that responsibility for ensuring the operational safety of ships is properly a matter for the commercial shipping industry, working in partnership with the tug and salvage industries; it did not believe that it was appropriate for the taxpayer to fund this provision.”
She added that no vessel had run aground or foundered in UK waters, nor had any pollution occurred, as a result of a ship being unable to engage a suitable towing vessel.
Following the Sea Empress disaster towing regulations in the Milford Haven waterway were tightened. Following the lead from a Scottish oil terminal, Sullom Voe, ‘escort towing’ was started. Cory Towage sent a representative to Shetland to observe and report back.
At the time the Sea Empress went aground this practice had already started in the Solent for the Port of Southampton, If Milford Haven had done the same in time, the disaster would certainly not have occurred.
Further reading: The Sea Empress’s second accident