2. The Accident

Mr Paul Loveluck, the chief executive of the Countryside Commission of Wales once said: "If you were looking for a place not to spill oil, this would be it. The Pembrokeshire coastline is one of the most important European marine areas, if not in the world. This was a disaster waiting to happen." 4   It was exactly here, that on Thursday, February 15, 1996, the tanker catastrophe began.

near St. Anne's Head 5

The Sea Empress was on its way to Milford Haven' s Texaco refinery to deliver its cargo of about 140,000 tonnes of crude oil. At about 8 p.m., the tanker struck the mid-channel rocks and several starboard and centre tanks got holed. 6

This led to an initial oil spill of more than 1,000 tons. The Sea Empress began to slow down and steerage problems occurred. She headed off-course across the "deep pool", which is encircled by rocks, then drifted towards St. Anne's Head and finally ran aground in Mill Bay. Harbour tugs managed to refloat the tanker and it was then held in position in the "pool" just south of Blockhouse Point. At this time the ship was leaning at an angle of 18 degrees to the right side.

On Friday, the 16h of February, they prepared to transfer the fuel to the Star Bergen tanker. The salvage team arrived in the afternoon and later two more powerful tugs from Liverpool. They managed to reduce the angle at which the ship was leaning and the ship was kept in position for the rest of Friday.

The next day, storm winds were forecast, holding up the salvage operation. The vessel was turned to face the wind and the pilot requested permission to take it out to sea. Permission was refused however (by whom is the question) and, that evening, because of gale force winds, the lines holding the Sea Empress snapped. The ship ran aground for the second time: on the rocks at St. Anne's Head.

With the oil leaking badly and risk of explosion, the Russian crew and the salvage workers were taken off the tanker in the night to Sunday 18 and people were also evacuated from the St. Anne's Head area.

By lunch-time a salvage team was airlifted back onto the ship. The weather and water conditions were calmer by then and the world’s 7th largest tug, the Chinese De Yue, arrived. In the afternoon they managed to refloat the Sea Empress and she was now kept in position by the De Yue and other tugs.

In the night to Monday 19, however, the De Yue lost one of its holding shackles and was replaced by the Anglian Duke. As the weather worsened, the Sea Empress broke loose again and ran aground, a third time.

The next day the situation got most difficult, as she was held fast by a rock that was so pointed and sharp that it had penetrated the hull of the ship from below. By then 65,000 tonnes of oil had been lost. In the evening they tried to refloat her at high tide, but were not successful. By Wednesday they managed at last to achieve their aim after having pumped air into her and as 12 tugs had been employed to pull her free at last.

It was one week after the first grounding, Thursday 22, when they managed to tow the Sea Empress to a disused jetty at Milford Haven in calm waters in order to prepare her for pumping the oil out of her onto a smaller tanker. 7 At last the oil dispersion operation by ships and aircraft could begin. As the preparations were not completed by the Friday the offloading did not begin until Saturday. Over 72.000 tonnes of crude oil had been spilled by then.

On March 27, the Sea Empress left Milford Haven and lost some more fuel oil on its journey to a dry dock in Belfast, where it arrived on April 2. 8 The oil spill from this tanker was the 3rd greatest ever to happen in the United Kingdom (after the Torrey Canyon, which spilled 117.000 tonnes around Cornwall in 1967 and the Braer off the Scottish coast in 1993). 9 All the same, no-one at that time could imagine what vast consequences this disaster would really have for the environment.

4 Pollution wipes-out rare starfish colony, in: Western Telegraph, 21-02-1996, p. 5
5 The accident took place about 500 m to the right of this passenger boat to Ireland
6 cf. Stoddart, M., Four steps to disaster, in: The Mercury (Milford Haven), 01-03-1997, p. 7
7 cf. Stoddart, M., Four steps to disaster, in: The Mercury (Milford Haven), 01-03-1997, p. 7
8 cf. SEEEC Report, p. 6 (3.3.1)
9 cf. SEEEC Report, p. 6 (3.3.1)

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