The weather, too, had been somewhat in our favour. It hampered a speedy recovery of the vessel but the rougher the seas are the quicker the oil gets dispersed into tiny globules in the seawater and the quicker the bacteria in the water can decompose it. A big oil spill in calm water would have been much more of a problem. Out at sea, this turbulence combined with early spraying of ‘dispersants’ (detergents) on slicks of the stuff floating on the water, helped get it broken down quickly. Such dispersants are far less toxic that those used in earlier spills such as the Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967 where the detergent is thought to have caused more ecological damage than the spilled oil.
Nevertheless, following our advice and most modern practice, no such dispersants were sprayed on shore nor at sea within a kilometre of the shore. The clean-up of bathing beaches had begun immediately, all of it done mechanically with suction, pressure washers, with diggers and by hand with spades. It was filthy work. Amazingly, most of the tourist beaches were clean by the summer though remnants of the tar-like oil could still be found in sheltered spots where physical clean-up was impossible and in rock pools three years after the spill. On shingle beaches and coves, on rocky stretches of coast and in many other places, although some oil could be removed physically, most could not – and some coves are inaccessible anyway – so here nature was left to its own devices, an open air laboratory to study the sequence and rate at which different creatures made a comeback.
Luxury Wildlife Travel Photo Gallery
Results from a study to see how effective the oiled bird clean-up had been, something never before examined, proved particularly depressing. In spite of huge efforts made by an army of volunteers and experts from the RSPCA and other agencies, 70% of the Guillemots cleaned and released died within 14 days of release and only 3% of them survived for three months. This was not what anyone wanted to hear but it did suggest that it would have been kinder to humanely kill the worst oiled birds wherever they are picked up rather than subject them to the clean-up trauma in an environment that was completely unnatural to them, stressing the birds even more. It was a lesson for any future disaster like this: trying to do good can result in more harm.
When I looked at some of the bathing beaches and the least accessible foreshores polluted with oil, like many others at the time I assumed it would be several years before everything became normal again. How wrong we were. The £60 million clean-up had brought the tourists back in good numbers by the following year, the contamination levels in fish and shellfish had reduced so that fisheries were re-opened, and by 2001 -five years after the spill – it was difficult to find a location in which the marine life was not back to normal. Fish populations were healthy once again. Breeding seabirds are all doing well. The Grey Seal population continues to grow. And all of these depend on a healthy food chain from limpets and barnacles and much else that can’t even be seen.
Sea Empress also recovered unbelievably well! Following the spill, she was repaired and renamed five times. In 2004, she was sold and moved to Chittagong as a floating production and storage ship. In September 2009, she was acquired by Singapore-based Oriental Ocean Shipping Holding PTE Ltd, renamed MV Welwind and converted from an oil tanker to a bulk carrier. In 2012, she was renamed for a fifth time and is currently known as Wind 3. She remains prohibited from entering Milford Haven and has not visited Pembrokeshire since she was towed out later in 1996.
Long term, the Sea Empress incident gave increased impetus to international regulations for all oil tankers to be double-hulled. All passenger ships have long been double-hulled – two steel hulls separated by a distance of up to 60 cm – in order to reduce the chances of oil spills from more minor collisions or groundings on rocks (being less likely to penetrate through two hulls than one). It was a requirement we at CCW had long considered should have been mandatory. In practice it has taken many years to take effect because single-hulled oil tankers were allowed to operate legally until they were taken out of service.
But Sea Empress had another, I think more important, consequence too. At the time of the incident there was a proposal to import orimulsion into Milford Haven to use it as a liquid fuel for the Pembroke Power Station. This station was located on the haven but not operating because of the high cost of oil that had been used there in the past for generating electricity.
Orimulsion is bitumen-based fuel that was developed for industrial use in Venezuela in collaboration with Britain’s BP. Like coal and oil, bitumen occurs naturally and is obtained from the world’s largest deposit in the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela. There are massive deposits there. It’s cheap and can be transported by tanker where it has to be kept liquid by heating it. But orimulsion, being heavy, sinks in water and a spill at sea would result in it coating the seabed and killing off any living creatures it was in contact with. The risk of that happening, combined then with many single-hulled tankers in common use and the huge ecological and tourist value of the southwest coast and seas of Wales was, in my view, a risk that should not be taken. My position was supported by CCW’s Council and I had advised BP accordingly that we would be very strongly opposed to orimulsion ever being used and transported into Milford Haven.