Milford Haven: the Sea Empress Oil Spill

Milford Haven: the Sea Empress Oil Spill

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Just after 20:00 GMT on the evening of Thursday, 15 February 1996 the Sea Empress was entering the Milford Haven Waterway at St. Ann's Head en route from the North Sea to deliver 130,000 tonnes of North Sea crude to the Texaco oil refinery near Pembroke. 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

The spill occurred within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park - one of Europe's most important and sensitive wildlife and marine conservation areas. It was Britain's third largest oil spillage and the twelfth largest in the world at the time.

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, frantic efforts to pull the vessel from the rocks continued. Tugboats were drafted in from the ports of Dublin, Liverpool and Plymouth to assist with the salvage operation.

Nearly a week after her initial grounding and after spilling 73,000 tonnes of oil into the ecologically sensitive waters of the Pembrokeshire coast, she was eventually pulled free from the rocks. The battered tanker was towed to berth at a disused jetty in the Milford Haven waterway. Her remaining cargo of 57,000 tonnes of oil was pumped out for refining. She remained berthed in the haven for six weeks before being towed to Belfast for repair.

The Sea Empress disaster occurred in Britain's only coastal national park and in one of only three UK marine nature reserves. 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.
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 have undoubtedly 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.

The greatest effect of the spill was on the children of the local communities who were shocked to the core that this black sludge carrying the bedraggled bodies of sea birds had impacted their beautiful remote rocky shores and sandy bays. It prompted the formation of SCAN, the Schools and Communities Agenda 21 network and there was an upsurge in ecological spirituality, which, through school conferences in Swansea, Cardiff and Coventry, produced meditations on the ‘Great Coventry Tapestry’.

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