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The Sea Empress oil spill, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK

On February 15th 1996, this supertanker loaded with 130,000 tonnes of oil, became grounded on rocks in the Midlford Haven Waterway in Wales. The resulting oil spill was one of the UK's worst environmental disasters.


On 15th February 1996, just after 8pm, the Sea Empress was on its way to the Texaco oil refinery near Pembroke when it became grounded on mid-channel rocks at St. Ann’s Head, at the entrance of the Milford Haven Waterway in Pembrokeshire. The supertanker was loaded with more than 130,000 tonnes of crude oil. (3)

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:The Sea Empress oil spill, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK
Country:United Kingdom
State or province:Wales
Location of conflict:coast of Pembrokeshire
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Sea Empress was a Liberian-registered vessel of 147,272 dwt with a Russian crew of 27 people. (6) Port of Registry Monrovia, Liberia . Registered Owners Alegrete Shipping, Co. Inc. Monrovia

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Level of Investment for the conflictive projectIt cost £60m to deal with the environmental damage caused by the oil spill (3) (9).
Type of populationUnknown
Start of the conflict:1996
End of the conflict:1999
Company names or state enterprises:Texaco Inc.
Relevant government actors:Marine Pollution Control Unit (MPCU)
Department of Transport (DoT)
Mildford Haven Port Authority (MHPA)
International and Finance InstitutionsITOPF from United Kingdom - Advices in the immediate response to the oil spill, long-term assistance in determining the contamination and reporting
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Friends of the Earth Wales
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Recreational users
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
A year after the environmental disaster Friends of the Earth protestors took buckets of oil contaminated shingle to government offices (3).
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsheadache, sore eyes, sore throat (symptoms predicted to be associated with exposure to crude oil on the basis of known toxicological effects), anxiety and the belief that oil had affected health (5)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsImmediate fishing ban which had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry (coastal crab and lobster fisheries and offshore finfisheries (1)).
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
New legislation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Sea Empress was one of the biggest oil spill and environmental catastrophes in the UK, together with the Torrey Canyon in 1968. There was a court case brought by ITOPF against the Milford Haven port authority because the mistake was made by the pilot they provided. According to source (10) the oil firm Texaco sued in 2002 the Milford Haven Port Authority for £10m over the Sea Empress oil disaster in 1996. The claim was submitted in February 2002, just before the final deadline. It is not the only multimillion pound action that the port authority is facing over the disaster. The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund is seeking £34m for money it paid out to the victims of the disaster, together with any further compensation it may have to pay in future. More than 200km of the west Wales coastline was affected when the Sea Empress ran aground in February 1996, spilling 72,000 tonnes of crude oil into the estuary. The spill caused a major environmental disaster The 147,000-tonne Norwegian-owned tanker struck rocks at the mouth of the estuary near St Ann's Head - it was the third-largest tanker spill in UK waters. In a statement, Texaco said that it has made its claim to protect its legal position in the aftermath of the disaster.
It confirmed it had issued a claim form against the Milford Haven Port Authority and Milford Haven Pilotage Limited." (10).
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Report of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents into the grounding and subsequent salvage of the tanker SEA EMPRESS at Milford Haven between 15 and 21 February 1996. Southampton 1997. This full report has 4 parts plus Annexes.
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References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

(1) The Sea Empress Oil Spill, Post Note, UK Parliament, 75, February 1996.
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(5) Lyons RA, Temple JM, Evans D, et al, 1999, Acute health effects of the Sea Empress oil spill. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health;53:306-310.
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(4) Law R. J. and C. Kelly, 2004, The impact of the “Sea Empress” oil spill, Aquatic Living Resources, 17, 389-394. DOI: 10.1051/alr:2004029
[click to view]

(6) Johnson D. and Butt N. The Sea Empress disaster – 10 years later, an overview of shipping activities in UK waters, WWF UK report, February 2006.
[click to view]

(7) White I.C. and Baker J.N., 1998, The Sea Empress Oil Spill in context.
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(3) Main Jess, The Sea Empress: 25 years on since one of the biggest environmental disasters in the UK, ITV Wales, 15 February 2021.
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(8) Sea Empress, Wales, UK, 1996, Case Studies on the ITOPF website. ITOPF was established in 1968 in the wake of the TORREY CANYON oil spill. Its original function was the administration of an oil spill compensation scheme.
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(10)Texaco's Sea Empress claim. 21 August 2003.
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(9) Gibbs G., Port fined £4m for oil tanker spill, The Guardian, 16 January 1999
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Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

(2) Sea Empress disaster. Sequence of BBC news reports covering 9 days (16/02/96 to 24/02/96), Youtube video.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Nina Limacher
Last update04/08/2022
Conflict ID:6104
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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