In Photos: Lessons from the Scene of the Sea Empress Oil Spill

Dr. Robin Crump had a front row seat to one of the world’s worst oil spills.

Twenty years ago, on Feb. 15, 1996, the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground on mid-channel rocks in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in Wales.

Over the course of the following week, the Sea Empress spilled almost 18 million gallons — 80 million litres — of crude oil, making it Britain’s third largest oil spill and the world’s 12th largest at the time.

Beaches were coated in a thick brown chocolate mousse of petroleum. Thousands of birds and other creatures perished. The rare species, Asterina Phylactica, first discovered by Dr. Crump, was reduced to a handful of individuals. Thanks in large part to Crump’s efforts, the species was well on the road to recovery within six months.

A temporary fishing ban was installed due to the unknown effects of toxic poisoning. This of course lead to job losses in the industry with some fishing companies reporting the impacts took up to six years to recover from.

Sea Empress oil spill, 1996. Photo: Wales Online

Cleanup crews work to contain oil on the beach. Photo: Wales Online

“There are huge problems with pipelines in remote locations,” says Crump, a retired biologist.

I am here on the coast of Wales at the invitation of the British artist, Abigail Sidebotham, who is curating a year-long project commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sea Empress oil spill.

I have come to Pembrokeshire to give a presentation on Canada’s oilsands, but more importantly, I am here to try and learn from the experience of the oil spill here and gain a sense of what increased tanker traffic could mean for Canada’s coastal ecology and economy.

Much like parts of Canada’s east and west coasts, there is a tension between the scenic beauty and ecology — the basis of a successful tourism and fishing economy — and the demands of industry.

An oil tanker approaches the entrance to Milford Haven where the Sea Empress ran aground. The marker in the foreground indicates the submerged rocks which caused the accident. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

Oil tanker entering Milford Haven with the Valero oil refinery in the background. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

The beach and dunes at Freshwater West. Located very close to the scenes of the spill, this was one of the hardest hit beaches. Fans of the Harry Potter movies may also recognize it has the scene “Shell Cottage” and Dobby’s death and burial. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

A 2015 report from Pembrokeshire County Council states that the region’s strengths include renewable energy, sustainable tourism and the rural economy.

But the deep-water port of Milford Haven, scene of the Sea Empress oil spill, hosts an oil refinery (which was the destination of the Sea Empress, two liquefied natural gas plants, a gas-fired power station and a high-voltage national grid transmission line, which could service the region’s burgeoning wind, tidal, wave and solar energy industries.)

A section of Milford Haven and the Valero oil refinery — formerly Texaco — which was the destination of the Sea Empress. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

Comparisons to the Canadian ports of Kitimat, St. John, Burnaby and Prince Rupert spring to mind when looking at the economic potential and challenges of Pembrokeshire.

When I ask Crump specifically about Canada’s current debate regarding oilsands pipelines and tanker traffic, he responds, “It depends how much you value your wildlife, as a country, as a people and as a government.”

Oil-Covered Hail

Retired farmer and author of  “Farming for Better Profitability,” John Davies, had a farm eleven miles — 18 kilometres — inland at the time of the Sea Empress oil spill.

Sitting in the kitchen of his cottage, he reflects on the events that day.

Shortly after the spill, as the oil was coming ashore, a strong storm and high winds caused a deluge of black hail stones leaving a 2.5 inch deposit on Davies’ fields and porch.

He filled a three-gallon bucket with the hail stones. A few hours later, the hail had melted, but left behind a gallon of thick black and yellow oil.

It was “a phenomenon I had never seen before and never want to see again,” Davies said.

There were big agricultural losses after the Sea Empress spill. The chemical dispersants that were used at sea after the oil spill damaged about 15 square miles of crops, as they were blown onto the land. Like Davies, other farmers’ fields were covered with oil. This had grave results, as some drinking water was contaminated and may have caused health problems in cattle and sheep.

Although an oil spill is a dramatic and (thankfully) rare event, I am reminded of the research by retired University of Alberta professor David Schindler. Schindler found that the greatest concentrations of toxic contaminants downstream from the tar sands occurred during the spring thaw, indicating that the toxins spewing from the smokestacks and rising from the tailings ponds concentrated in the atmosphere and rained back down on us as precipitation.

This sobering thought came to mind several times as I photographed the juxtaposition of the Valero oil refinery with the agricultural land that surrounds it.

Valero oil refinery and surrounding agricultural land. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

During my stay in Pembrokeshire, I was based in the picturesque coastal village of Tenby, located along a 186-mile coastal path, regularly rated among the planet’s Top 10 walks.

South Beach and the picturesque town of Tenby as seen from a section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

Tenby. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

St. Catherine’s Island along the shore of Tenby. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

The path passes vast sand beaches, dramatic bluffs, intimate coves, sea stacks and pastoral grazing fields — interrupted every few miles by charming villages with castles, quaint inns and pubs.

It’s little wonder that National Geographic named Tenby the second best coastal destination in the world.

A small section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

A section of the rugged coastline along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

There I met with Chris Osbourne, owner and manager of the Fourcroft Hotel.

He recalled the smell of oil that permeated the community for several hours after the Sea Empress spill as the community realized that not only their quality of life was threatened, but so were their businesses.

The area was cosmetically cleaned up fairly quickly, but there were still significant losses.

“Many coach trips and individuals canceled” Osbourne said, adding he and others “lost a lot of money.”

Yet it could have been far, far worse.

The vast majority of the 72,000 tonnes of crude that spilled was very thin North Sea crude. Only about 480 tonnes of heavier crude was spilled — that’s the kind of stuff that would likely sink to the sea bed and smother it, potentially inflicting damage for up to a hundred years or more, biologist Crump said.

Crude produced in the Alberta oilsands, called bitumen, is among the heaviest forms of oil.

The Alberta tar sands, also call oilsands. Multiple pipeline proposals to tidewater, and the recent election of Donald Trump who supports the proposed Keystone pipeline, make tar sands tankers of the coasts of Canada and Europe an increasingly likely scenario in the near future. Photo: Garth Lenz

Cut with highly toxic natural gas condensate, the type of bitumen Canada wants to export would very likely sink, making it next to impossible to clean up. Recent research by Canadian and U.S. scientists found there are major knowledge gaps when it comes to the effects of bitumen on marine environments.

“If mistakes happen, and mistakes do happen, the consequences can be catastrophic,” Osbourne said.

Keep in mind that modern super tankers can have greater than triple the carrying capacity of the Sea Empress.

Canada’s coastal communities are far more dependent on the fishing industry than Wales. Wildlife populations are far greater, particularly on the West Coast. And the region is much more remote, making a large-scale clean up effort that much more difficult.

While I was in Wales, I learned about the Nathan E. Stewart, the tug that had run aground and sunk in the Great Bear Rainforest, discharging an estimated 100,000 litres of diesel. Three weeks later, the relatively small spill still had not been contained, devastating the Heiltsuk Nation.

Mistakes do indeed happen.
Lead image: An oil tanker traverses Milford Haven. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog

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