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.