In Photos: Twenty Years Later, Lessons from the Scene of the Sea Empress Oil Spill


Robin Crump, a now retired wildlife biologist and former director of Pembrokeshire’s Orielton Field Centre, had a front row seat to one of the world’s worst oil spills.

Twenty years ago, on 15 February, 1996, the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground on mid-channel rocks in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in Wales.

Over the course of the following week, the Sea Empress spilled almost 18 million gallons – 80 million litres – of crude oil, making it Britain’s third largest oil spill and the world’s 12th largest at the time. Britain’s worst oil spill, the Torrey Canyon spill in 1967, also occurred off Britain’s south-west coast and spilled between 94-164 million litres.

After the Sea Empress spill, beaches were coated in a thick brown chocolate mousse of petroleum. Thousands of birds and other creatures perished. The thumbnail sized rare species of sea star, Asterina Phylactica, first discovered by Dr Crump, was reduced to a handful of individuals. However, thanks to Crump’s efforts the species was well on the road to recovery within six months.

A temporary fishing ban was installed due to the unknown effects of toxic poisoning. This of course lead to job losses in the industry with some fishing companies reporting the impacts took up to six years to recover from.  

Sea Empress oil spill, 1996. Photo: Wales Online

Cleanup crews work to contain oil on the beach. Photo: Wales Online

There are huge problems with pipelines and tankers in remote locations,” Crump, a retired biologist, tells me. 

I am here on the coast of Wales at the invitation of the British artist, Abigail Sidebotham, who is curating a year-long project commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sea Empress oil spill. I have come to Pembrokeshire to give a presentation on Canada’s tar sands, but more importantly, I am here to try and learn from the Welsh experience of the oil spill and gain a sense of what increased tanker traffic could mean for Canada’s coastal ecology and economy.

Much like parts of Canada’s east and west coasts, there is a tension in Wales between the scenic beauty and ecology — the basis of a successful tourism and fishing economy — and the demands of industry.

An oil tanker approaches the entrance to Milford Haven where the Sea Empress ran aground. The marker in the foreground indicates the submerged rocks which caused the accident. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

Oil tanker entering Milford Haven with the Valero oil refinery in the background. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

The beach and dunes at Freshwater West. Located very close to the scenes of the spill, this was one of the hardest hit beaches. Fans of the Harry Potter movies may also recognize it has the scene “Shell Cottage” and Dobby’s death and burial. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

A 2015 report from Pembrokeshire County Council states that the region’s strengths include renewable energy, sustainable tourism, and the rural economy.

But the deep-water port of Milford Haven, scene of the Sea Empress oil spill, hosts an oil refinery (which was the destination of the Sea Empress), two liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, a gas-fired power station, and a high-voltage national grid transmission line, which could service the region’s burgeoning wind, tidal, wave, and solar energy industries.

A section of Milford Haven and the Valero oil refinery – formerly Texaco – which was the destination of the Sea Empress. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

When I ask Crump about Canada’s current debate regarding tar sands pipelines and tanker traffic, he responds: “It depends how much you value your wildlife, as a country, as a people and as a government.”

Oil-Covered Hail 

John Davis, a retired farmer and author of “Farming for Better Profitability”, had a farm eleven miles – 18 kilometres – inland at the time of the Sea Empress oil spill. Sitting in the kitchen of his cottage, he reflects on the events that day.

Shortly after the spill, as the oil was coming ashore, a strong storm and high winds caused a deluge of black hail stones leaving a 2 ½ inch deposit on Davies’ fields and porch. He filled a three-gallon bucket with the hail stones. A few hours later, the hail had melted, but left behind a gallon of thick black and yellow oil. It was “a phenomenon I had never seen before and never want to see again”, Davies says.

There were big agricultural losses after the Sea Empress spill. The chemical dispersants that were used at sea after the oil spill damaged about 15 square miles of crops, as they were blown onto the land. Like Davies, other farmers’ fields were covered with oil. This had grave results, as some drinking water was contaminated and may have caused health problems in cattle and sheep.

Although an oil spill is a dramatic and (thankfully) rare event, I am reminded of the research by retired University of Alberta professor David Schindler. Schindler found that the greatest concentrations of toxic contaminants downstream from the tar sands occurred during the spring thaw, indicating that the toxins spewing from the smokestacks and rising from the tailings ponds concentrated in the atmosphere and rained back down on us as precipitation.

This sobering thought came to mind several times as I photographed the juxtaposition of the Valero oil refinery with the agricultural land that surrounds it.

Valero oil refinery and surrounding agricultural land. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

During my stay in Pembrokeshire, I was based in the picturesque coastal village of Tenby, located along a 186-mile coastal path, regularly rated among the planet’s Top 10 walks.

South Beach and the picturesque town of Tenby as seen from a section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

Tenby. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

St. Catherine’s Island along the shore of Tenby. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

The path passes vast sand beaches, dramatic bluffs, intimate coves, sea stacks and pastoral grazing fields — interrupted every few miles by charming villages with castles, quaint inns and pubs.

It’s little wonder that National Geographic named Tenby the second best coastal destination in the world.

A small section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

There I met with Chris Osbourne, owner and manager of the Fourcroft Hotel.

He recalls the smell of oil that permeated the community for several hours after the Sea Empress spill as the community realized that not only their quality of life was threatened, but so were their businesses.

The area was cosmetically cleaned up fairly quickly, but there were still significant losses. “Many coach trips and individuals canceled” Osbourne says, adding he and others “lost a lot of money”.

Yet it could have been far, far worse. The vast majority of the 72,000 tonnes of crude that spilled was very thin North Sea crude. Only about 480 tonnes of heavier crude was spilled.

That’s the kind of stuff that would likely sink to the sea bed and smother it, potentially inflicting damage for up to a hundred years or more”, biologist Crump says. Indeed, some of the greatest and most long lasting impacts were from this relatively small amount of heavy oil. Something to consider as more tankers are carrying so called “heavy oil” from places like Venezuela, and Canada’s tar sands.

These impacts include the smothering of seaweeds and micro-algae. While the lighter oil was dispersed and cleaned within a relatively short period of time, deposits of heavy crude were much more persistent, deposits being found up to three years after. Even today, examples of tar like deposits fused to rock in the nearby Pembroke River are an example of the effects of heavy oil.

Lessons Learned

When I asked Osbourne about possible lessons learned from the Sea Empress spill his response was: “Do not take things for granted, especially the natural habitat.”

Given how important the natural habitat is to Pembrokeshire’s economy, and of course to the health and quality of life of its residents, it is fair to ask what steps have been taken in the wake of the Sea Empress disaster to reduce the chance of such an event repeating itself.

The most significant development is one that the Sea Empress is only partly responsible for. The ban on single hulled oil tankers from all European ports only came about in 2003. A total of 14 years after the single hulled Exxon Valdez spilled 40,000 tonnes of crude into Prince William Sound in 1989, the 85,000 tonnes spilled in ‘93 by the single hulled Braer, and the Sea Empress with its 70,000 tonnes in 1996. Even after all that, it was only after yet another single hulled European tanker disaster, the 50,000 tonne Prestige tanker spill off the coast of Spain in 2002, that the European Union finally installed a ban on single hulled oil tankers from European ports in 2003.

Of course, massive tanker spills can and do happen with double hulled tankers, but banning single hull tankers from ports like Millford Haven is a very positive step and could have prevented, or at least significantly reduced, the impact of the Sea Empress spill.

The Port Authority of Milford Haven itself has taken a number of positive steps. Pilot error was sited as the cause of the Sea Empress disaster and the Port Authority has worked to address that. Ships of a certain size are now required to have two pilots on board when piloting the ship into harbour as well as being required to have a tug escort them into harbour.

The Milford Haven Port Authority has also helped produce highly advanced software that is being used in Milford Haven but also in the Panama Canal, the world’s busiest shipping lane. And the pilots making use of this software are now extensively trained on simulators before piloting a ship. And should a problem occur, the port now has nine of the largest and most modern and powerful harbour tugs at its disposal.

Still, no industrial undertaking is without its risks and apathy may be one of the most serious. Chris Osbourne reflects that when Milford Havens’ two LNG terminals and storage facilities were originally proposed, “there was significant opposition which sited numerous examples of fires and dramatic explosions occurring during the process of offloading the gas from the tanker and into the terminal.”

Money talks” however, Osbourne continues, and “they have had to accept two state of the art LNG storage facilities in nearby Millford Haven.” Osbourne goes on to tell me that, “as no accidents have yet happened, people have become more comfortable with the LNG facilities”.

But he cautions that “it only takes one mistake, one error.”

Keep in mind that modern super tankers can have greater than triple the carrying capacity of the Sea Empress.

If mistakes happen, and mistakes do happen,” says Osbourne, “the consequences can be catastrophic.”

Lead image: An oil tanker traverses Milford Haven. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

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