6. Causes of and Responsibility for the Accident
and Criticism of
the Salvage and Clean-up Operations
The question of who was really responsible for the whole disaster is very hard to answer, as there were so many factors contributing to it, but it must be asked. Some questions have not been fully answered yet. This, however, is exactly the reason why a public inquiry is necessary, to focus attention mainly on the efficiency of the salvage and clean-up operations. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has been trying to examine the matter.
Of course the tanker should not have run aground in the first place. The Milford Haven Port Authority says it was due to an error of the pilot, John Pearn, aged 34, whose duty it was to guide the Sea Empress into the Haven. They found him guilty of incompetence, as he had probably underestimated the run and stretch of the tide.33
It is also claimed that the pilot did not board the Sea Empress early enough, but that he was taken on board only 15 minutes before the tanker was grounded. So the time he had to deal with any difficulties that could occur was reduced. There was no time left for the pilot to discuss a plan of action with the Russian captain of the tanker, Eduard Bolgov.34
But the grounding of the tanker was only the beginning of a disastrous chain of events. The salvage operation that followed was a real fiasco and has been greatly criticised. First of all there is the mystery about who really was in control of the operation. There was a disagreement between the pilot and the harbourmaster and no-one knew who was really in charge and had the final say. There were obviously too many people all giving directions, as decisions were made by a committee. It seems as if the main concern of some was not to save the environment but to rescue the ship and its cargo.
It is also supposed that strong winds and currents altered the position of the navigation buoys, which are placed in order to mark the tanker route into harbour.35 But human error is again a main factor in the claim that those in charge of the Sea Empress were rushing to enter Milford Haven, as they did not want to wait hours for the next high tide. The tanker should not have been allowed to enter just 90 minutes before an extremely low spring tide that day, especially as there is a huge difference between low and high water in the Haven. In addition entry into the Haven is made quite difficult by a string of rocks on its southern side.36
There were also some cost-cutting factors that are very decisive. They should, for example, have had two pilots on board, one of them a senior pilot, but as the vessel was just 3,000 tonnes below the weight limit, they were able to evade this rule.37
Secondly the Sea Empress is a single-hulled tanker. Many experts claim that the disaster could have been prevented if the ship had been double-hulled. At least this would surely have reduced the damage done. The experts say that oil companies should stop using single-hulled tankers to transport such huge cargoes of oil.
Another "fiasco", as Simon Lyster, director general of the Wildlife Trust, said, was that there was not a proper salvage tug in the region. The whole salvage operation according to his opinion was "under-resourced by the government". As a result of the Donaldson Report on the Braer oil disaster in January 1993, two large and powerful salvage tugs were placed in the Shetlands and at Dover, but none was allocated to Wales, although it was known that Milford Haven, the second largest oil port in Europe, is a very sensitive region of great environmental importance and that tanker accidents had already occurred there.38 In fact there are over 30 oil spill incidents there every year.39 What is more, a tanker loaded with 112,000 tonnes of crude oil, struck the rocks at the entrance to the Haven only a few months before the Sea Empress! This was on October 29, 1995. The Borga, a Norwegian vessel, had a double hull and luckily no oil was lost.40
Mrs Sheila Russell, former mayoress of Milford Haven and friend of our family, told me in a conversation that we should not, however, rely on double-hulled tankers alone to prevent such catastrophes. It is the whole running of the Port Authority that she criticises. A disaster had to occur sooner or later. The main aim of Michael Hyslop, who took over the job of administering the port in 1988, was obviously to cut costs where he could, saving money everywhere - at the expense of safety! Right from the beginning of his administration, he started reducing the number of tugs, crew members, pilots, the whole work force. In the last 3 to 4 years about 100 tugmen have been put out of work and the number of pilot boats (which patrol the Haven and bring the pilots back and fore to the tankers) and tugs has been cut by half. The remaining staff have had to work a lot of overtime and suffer stress through overwork. She claims that he cut costs to the danger point.41
A former senior pilot, who was employed at Milford Haven from 1973 until the late 80s, said that there had been a drift away from an emphasis on safety and navigation by the Port towards more commercial operation and this had seriously affected the morale of the ports pilots.42 Another pilot said that John Pearn was not the only one to blame. Maybe he had grounded the tanker because of lack of experience. But he believed that the Port Authority must also be criticised for this, as they did not offer the pilots sufficient possibilities of training for their job. They refused, for example, to provide their pilots with the means for simulated training and only sent one to Rotterdam, where there is an excellent training programme. The others were not allowed to go for reasons of expense.43
A real scandal is that the radar system at the entrance to the Haven had not been operating properly for months and that it was not working when the ship grounded, although there had been many demands to have the over 10-year-old system renewed. If it had been working, the Haven would have been alerted that the tanker was on the wrong spot and could have asked if help was needed.44
The Port Authority is also accused of not having sufficient emergency equipment and that their salvage tugs were not powerful enough. Another accusation is that they did not use booms as soon as the disaster occurred. Why, too, was the tanker not brought alongside the Herbrandston fuel carrier at the Herbrandston jetty on the Monday night (the first night) to lighten the load? This tanker was available and near at hand.45
Another mystery is the decision taken after the Sea Empress had been refloated and was pointing straight out to sea. The pilot told the JRC (Joint Rescue Committee) that he could take the tanker out to the open sea. However the harbour master, Mark Andrews, replied: "I agree with you but there is a room full of men here saying no".46 Nobody seems to know definitely who those men were and this is one puzzle the Enquiry should solve. The harbour masters decision to allow the pilot to take the ship out to sea would surely have been the right one and normally his word should have counted, as he is the "boss".
Mrs Russell thinks that probably neither he nor the pilot were experienced enough to handle the situation. She also believes that the use of the escort tugs, that are sent out to accompany tankers into the Haven, as was the usual practice in previous years, would have helped to control the vessel, but here again oil companies and ship owners tried to save money. She thinks the refloating operation failed mainly because "too many cooks spoil the broth", as she described it. She thinks there were too many people saying different things and no-one really knew what to do.
If the tanker had been towed to the Herbrandston jetty the first night, surely the environmental pollution would have been a lot less, the cleaning of the oil would have been a lot easier and there would have been better chances of recovering it, as it would have stayed outside the Haven. As a great part of oil was floating inside the Haven, this created a lot more difficulties in cleaning it up.
The captain of the Sea Empress declared in an interview on the BBC television programme 'Panorama' 47 that the problem at the beginning was not a language problem, as he himself and some members of the crew could speak fluent English. The problem was that no-one on land seemed to have a coherent strategy for the whole salvage operation. There was no overall plan for what had to be done. Nick Ainger, the MP for Pembrokeshire, also expressed his anger and said in this programme that it should have been apparent right from the start that the strategy they had worked out could not be successful, as the necessary resources were just not there on the spot.
The spillage of oil could have been greatly minimised if they had asked other oil recovery vessels for assistance. The lightening tanker Sareta from Norway, for example, would have been able to extract up to 120,000 tonnes of oil from the grounded tanker, even during strong gales. But the excuse was made that, if the Sea Empress remained in the same position for too long, the probability of its breaking up would be extremely high.
Another possibility would have been to use the services of the anti-pollution vessel "Crystal Sea", which had been planned and constructed to collect the oil-water emulsion resulting from oil spills and to separate the oil from the water, retaining the oil and returning the clean water to the sea. In addition to this new invention, the "Crystal Sea" would have had five times the capacity of all ships that were actually employed.48
So it seems as if the whole pollution problem was not dealt with in the most effective way. There had even been offers from Norway to provide pollution control and dispersal vessels, but these were rejected. Instead toxic chemical dispersants were used in huge amounts and this may have done more harm than good.49
Sheila Russel believes that there should have been far more people working in the clean-up operation. For example the army should have been taking part in this.
The 'Western Telegraph' reported on March 13 that the German staff of the army at Castlemartin had offered their help directly after the incident but that this offer was refused.50 A German acquaintance of mine, who was stationed at Castlemartin at the time, told me that the local authorities had turned down the German Army's offer of help, claiming that everything was under control and that the situation was not all that serious.
33 cf. Gammon, C., Remember the Sea Empress disaster?
in: Night & Day, 21-07-1996, p. 18/19 (ref. doc. 19)
34 cf. Fowler R. / Cusick, J., Pilot may have boarded stricken tanker too late, in: The Independent, 24-02-1996, p.1
35 cf. Pierce, A., Navigation buoys may have been in the wrong place, in: The Times, 22-02-1996, p.18
36 cf. Former pilot criticises port control, in: Western Mail, Febr. 1996 (ref. doc. n° 4)
37 cf. Gammon, C., Remember the Sea Empress disaster? in: Night & Day, 21-07-1996, p. 19 (doc. 19)
38 cf. Pierce, A., Navigation buoys may have been in the wrong place, in: The Times, 22-02-1996, p.18
39 cf. Other tanker accidents at Milford Haven, at: Friends of the Earth - WWW-Homepage http://www.foe.co.uk/local/cymru/oilspill/accident.html (ref. doc n° 5)
40 cf. Milburn, A., Human error caused tanker to run aground, say owners, in: The Times, 04-06-1996
41 cf. Gammon, C., Remember the Sea Empress disaster? in: Night & Day, 21-07-1996, p. 20 (doc. 19)
42 cf. Former pilot criticises port control, in: Western Mail, Febr. 1996 (ref. doc. n° 4)
43 cf. Gammon, C., Remember the Sea Empress disaster? in: Night & Day, 21-07-1996, p. 19 (doc. 19)
44 Gammon, C., Remember the Sea Empress disaster? in: Night & Day, 21-07-1996, p. 20 (doc. 19)
45 cf. Tug boss questions salvage plan, in: The Mercury, 23-02-1996, p. 7
46 Stoddart, M., Four steps to disaster, in: The Mercury (Milford Haven), 01-03-1997, p. 7
47 video tape enclosed!
48 cf. Friends of the Earth, Critical Submission to Sea Empress Inquiry, 15-04-1996, at: WWW-Home-page http://www.foe.co/uk/pubsinfo/infoteam/pressrel/current/19960415141959.html (ref. doc. n° 6)
49 cf. Friends of the Earth, Critical Submission to Sea Empress Inquiry, 15-04-1996, at: WWW-Home-Page http://www.foe.co/uk/pubsinfo/infoteam/pressrel/current/19960415141959.html (ref. doc. n° 6)
50 cf. Co-ordination problems prevented German help, in: Western Telegraph, 13-03-1996 (ref. doc. n°7)
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