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The Sea Empress oil spill, Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK


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)

In the next week, 72,000 tonnes of Forties blend crude oil and 480 tonnes of heavy fuel oil spilled in the sea, within Pembrokeshire Coast National Park: it was one of Britain’s worst environmental disasters. Around 15,000 tonnes of emulsified oil came ashore along 200km of coastline. (4)

The wind speeds at the time of the accident prevented from starting at-sea recovery operations at the initial stage of the spill. The vessels deployed then were only able to recover 3% of the oil. Chemical dispersants were also sprayed from aircrafts and used on beaches, especially around Tenby and at Skrinkle Haven. (4)

Thousands of sea birds died or were covered in oil on the shores, despite volunteer’s attempts to save as many as possible. The area was ecologically very rich, with 35 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), a Marine Nature Reserve and two potential European Special Areas of Conservation. (6) On February 27, more than 1,200 oiled birds were in treatment and 400 bodies have been found. Around 5,000 birds were still flying but partly oiled. (1) No matter the efforts of the volunteers, there was a very low survival rate among oiled birds. (6) Common scoter ducks were the main victims. Their population has since made a significant recovery. 100% of the intertidal fauna died during the oil spill. Hundreds of people, including volunteers, worked to attempt to rescue seabirds and clean up the 120 miles of contaminated coastline. It costed £60 million. (3)

The area was also very important for fishing and tourism. (6) Immediately after the disaster, a voluntary ban was taken by local fishermen. Controls were organized under the 1985 Food and Environment Protection Act (FEPA): the restrictions were removed bit by bit, when the controls showed that the species were not posing risks to consumers consumption. For fishes and crustacea, this took from 3 to 8 months. Intertidal mussels and oysters were the last one, with the ban being lifter 19 months after the oil spill (4). Local fishermen then received financial compensation for the lass of income. The main touristic beaches were sufficiently clean by Easter, nine weeks after the spill, allowing their use for tourists. (4)

While the oil spill was considered one of the biggest worldwide, different sources affirmed the consequences were not as bad as they could have been. (3,4,6) According to Jon Moore, an Environmental Consultant specialized in oil spill, "it was lucky that the majority of it went outside of the Haven, where there's lots more wave action and water movement to break it up." "We really didn't find effects much beyond six or seven years after the spill, you'd struggle to find any effects now but bird population is possibly the exception." (3). Other point that it was thanks to how cold the spring of 1996 was, so feeding activity were reduced at the time of the oil spill. (4) It also happened at a period without many tourists and with a very low presence of wildlife species, that were either inactive or had already migrated. To finish, it was also due to the combination of the emergency response with chemical dispersants, the wind direction and the type of oil that made that only a relatively small volume of oil reached the coastline. (6)

The initial cause of the accident was identified as a pilot error, combined with poor weather. (6, 3) However, three years after the spilling, in January 1999, the Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) was fined a record £4m after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement. “The judge said the Sea Empress had run aground because of the "careless" navigation of a port authority pilot, who had never before attempted to take a vessel of similar size into the harbour close to low tide. "The pilot was put in a position by the port authority where he could make an error of navigation," he said.” For Friends of the Earth, this was not enough and the pressure group was still considering whether to launch a private prosecution against the Department of Transport. (9)

This disaster also led to the introduction of a national Port Marine Safety Code, to prevent the same thing from happening again. (3). Related disasters are:  Braer – Another single-hulled oil tanker which ran aground off the Shetland Islands in 1993 spilling 56,000 tonnes of oil; the famous Torrey Canyon that ran aground between the Scilly Islands and Land's End  en route to Milford Haven; the MT Haven – (formerly known as Amoco Milford Haven)  which sank off the coast of Genoa, Italy in 1991.

After being repaired and several changes of name, the Sea Empress was finally scrapped in 2012 in Chittagong. 

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

Commercial Managers : Seatankers Management, Cyprus . Technical Managers Acomarit (UK) Ltd, Glasgow . Built Spain, delivered 1993

Length Overall 274.30 metres

To answer the oil spill: (4)

- eight oil recovery vessels and twenty small support vessels were deployed, and managed to recover 3% of the oil.

- “extensive dispersant spraying operation, which included the aerial application of 446 tonnes of chemical oil dispersant in order to enhance the rate of natural dispersion of the oil. This reduced the impact of the spill by preventing an additional 57 000 to 110 000 tonnes of emulsified oil from impacting the beaches.”

- 12 tonnes of dispersant was used on the beaches.

“It has been estimated that the successful application of dispersants in this incident prevented an additional 57 000 to 110 000 t of emulsion coming ashore in South Wales.” (4)

“The total area affected by the voluntary fishing ban under the 1985 Food and Environment Protection Act (FEPA) covered about 810 square miles (2100 km 2 ) of coastal waters from St. David’s Head to Port Eynon Point, and included all the freshwater rivers and streams discharging into that area.” (4)

“The spill of 72,000 tonnes of crude oil and 370 tonnes of heavy fuel oil impacted substantially over a 100km stretch of coastline. Estimates suggest that overall 200km of coastline were affected. A further 25,000 tonnes of waste were created by the clean-up operation.” (6)

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.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

(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.

(1) The Sea Empress Oil Spill, Post Note, UK Parliament, 75, February 1996.

(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

(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.<

(7) White I.C. and Baker J.N., 1998, The Sea Empress Oil Spill in context.

(10)Texaco's Sea Empress claim. 21 August 2003.

(3) Main Jess, The Sea Empress: 25 years on since one of the biggest environmental disasters in the UK, ITV Wales, 15 February 2021.

(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.

(9) Gibbs G., Port fined £4m for oil tanker spill, The Guardian, 16 January 1999

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.

Meta information

Contributor:Nina Limacher
Last update04/08/2022
Conflict ID:6104



A year after the environmental disaster Friends of the Earth protestors took buckets of oil contaminated shingle to government offices.


The spillage prompted a huge volunteer response with people helping clear away the oil and the damage


The Sea Empress oil spill

Credits: Huw Evans.

The Sea Empress oil spill

Credits: Huw Evans.

The coast of southwest Wales affected by oil spilled from the Sea Empress.

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