Wales Reflects on Sea Empress Oil Spill

Friday, March 24, 2006
On the night of Thursday, February 15, 1996, shortly after 8pm the 147,000-ton supertanker Sea Empress had begun the final stages of its three-day voyage from Grangemouth, at the mouth of the River Forth, to Milford Haven docks and the Texaco refinery. As it was being piloted into port, the tanker, carrying a full cargo of North Sea light crude, ran aground on rocks in Mill Bay, just off St Ann’s Head, rupturing its oil tanks. What followed amounted to the UK’s third largest oil spill and, according to ic Wales, Wales’ worst environmental disaster. Over the course of the following week a total of 72,000 tons of oil leaked into the sea, polluting around 200 km of Pembrokeshire coastline, affecting 35 sites of special scientific interest, 20 National Trust properties as well as marine and nature reserves. The Wales Tourist Board (WTB) decided to enlist specialized support and contacted the public relations company that had handled the Brae disaster in Shetland. With the world’s media encamped in Milford Haven, ready to sensationalize the whole event, the oil arrived on Tenby’s blue flag North Beach. The reality was an all pervading stench and the looks of despair on the faces of hoteliers and local traders looking at their livelihoods disappearing before them. However, what followed has been described as a tribute to the clean up team and all who played a part in ensuring the beaches would be open by Easter. The national contingency plan set up by central government meant the local authority had responsibility for all onshore pollution, and government assistance to acquire the expensive equipment needed to deal with oil coming ashore. With Easter just seven weeks away, priority was given to cleaning those beaches that each year attracted thousands of visitors, while the same time ensuring that any work carried out on the shoreline would cause minimal impact to the environment. In achieving this the local authority were able to provide the necessary resources and, during the emergency phase of the operation, had as many as 1,000 workers at its disposal. Ten years on Pembrokeshire has more of its GDP generated by tourism than any other county in Wales. The industry bounced back and responded to the rising demands for increased quality and constant investment from a demanding and well informed public. In addition, there has been a significant change in the way the port authority conducts its business and how other UK port authorities conduct theirs. One such procedural improvement involves the escorting of large vessels into the haven. Now a tug will go out, meet the incoming tanker and attach a line so that in the event of steering or engine failure the tug can help steer or even slow down the ship. Milford Haven Port Authority has also invested in two new pilot launches; one being built, the other completed three years ago. New radar sites have also been installed and up-graded along with the radar and port control systems that manage the waterway. Dredging has been carried out and new navigation marks put in place as part of a procedures overhaul. (Source: ic Wales)
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