Tanker disasters

Monday 26 September 2011, 14:52

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

Pembrokeshire has always had its fair share of shipwrecks. In the days of sail it was inevitable that, with a westerly wind driving frail schooners and ketches onto the rugged coast, maritime disasters of one sort or another were bound to happen.

Oil spill sign

And when the oil industry came to Milford Haven in the early 1960s there were many prophets of doom who predicted ecological disaster should one of the giant oil tankers that regularly sailed in past St Ann's Head ever run up onto the rocks around the south Pembrokeshire coast. In the main, such disasters have not occurred - that does not mean, however, there have been no accidents and when shipwrecks have taken place the threat from oil spillage has been real and terrifying.

In fact there was near disaster right at the beginning. Esso's new refinery at Gelliswick Bay in the Haven had only just opened for business when, on 8 July 1960, the "Esso Portsmouth" began discharging 32,000 tons of crude oil at the terminal. She was the first ocean-going tanker to tie up at the refinery and expectation and excitement ran high. Unfortunately, so did the risk of danger, not only for the ship and refinery but for the whole town of Milford.

Almost as soon as the tanker began to discharge her cargo, there was a structural failure in one of the arms that took off the oil in huge pipes from the ship and a serious spillage took place. Within seconds the oil had ignited and a massive explosion rocked the area. Firemen quickly put out the flames and the majority of the cargo was saved but the hull of the "Esso Portsmouth" was seriously damaged and buckled.

The explosion was a warning. No serious oil leak had occurred but the incident could so easily have resulted in chaos. The next time an oil tanker was in trouble off the Pembrokeshire coast things did not go quite so well.

On 12 October 1978 the "Christos Bitas", en route from Rotterdam to Belfast, ran onto the Hats and Barrels Reef, some 10 or 15 miles off the coast. The ship was quickly re-floated and the captain decided to continue with the voyage. Unfortunately, the rocks had ripped a large hole in her bottom and the ship was now leaking oil at an alarming rate. The owners, BP, ordered her to stop and two tankers came alongside to take off over 20,000 tons of crude oil.

Although the "Christos Bitas" was towed out into the Atlantic and scuttled, thousands of tons of oil leaked into the sea. Over forty vessels were deployed, laying down booms around the oil and using skimmers to try to reclaim what they could. Aerial spraying, when it was feared the slick might reach the bird sanctuaries of Skomer and Skokholm, was also employed. In the end, after many days of hard physical effort, the oil was mopped up but not before somewhere in the region of 9,000 sea birds had been killed.

Milford Haven oil spill

Clearing up at Milford Haven

Pembrokeshire's next oil disaster, the third largest oil spillage in Britain, took place on 15 February 1996 when the "Sea Empress" grounded on the rocks of St Ann's Head at the mouth of Milford Haven. She was bound for the Texaco refinery on the south shore of the Haven but was pushed off course by the current and hit the rocks just after 8.00pm.

The "Sea Empress" had punctured her hull and rescue attempts by tugs from the Port Authority served only to make matters worse as the ship repeatedly re-grounded, slicing open her bottom even more. Over the course of the following week 73,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the water and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was faced with an ecological disaster of major proportions.

It took six weeks for the oil slick to disperse and in that time thousands of birds had died, caught up in the cloying and clogging mixture. Shearwaters, guillemots, puffins, birds that had made their homes on the islands off shore, fell victim to the oil. There was also serious damage to the shore line right around the coast, seaweed and invertebrates being particularly badly hit.

A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford and dozens of volunteers (as well as paid workers) toiled for days to try to minimize the extent of the disaster. Tugs and other vessels from as far away as Dublin and Plymouth also came to help.

The "Sea Empress" disaster was only the third major incident involving oil tankers to take place in and around Milford Haven. Perhaps the area has been lucky. One thing is certain - the potential for future disaster remains and the only way to avoid trouble is with extreme caution and vigilance. It is the least our coastline deserves.


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    Comment number 1.

    I remember the "Esso Portsmouth" explosion well Phil. It happened in the early morning and at that time from where I lived there was a grandstand view of Milford Haven. Although just over 5 miles away the explosion rattled our windows, woke me up and I went to the back of the house to see a ‘mushroom cloud’ of smoke above the Esso jetty. It looked a lot worse than it turned out to be and it was fortunate there were not more casualties and a major pollution incident.
    In 1973 I happened to be home when the "Dona Marika" went aground in Sandy Haven. She was a small products tanker carrying petrol I think, and much of what leaked evaporated so there was no major pollution incident, although I believe they evacuated St. Ishmaels for a while because of the fumes. They managed to re-float her a few months later.
    I missed the "Sea Empress" debacle, fortunately, but believe that that disaster was a significant fact in the decision not to convert the oil fired power station in Pennar Gut to Orimulsion. Good.

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    Comment number 2.

    Roger, you are obviously a Pembroke boy. Do you remember the Haven without the oil refineries? I often wonder what it was like without all those jetties and bits of metal.

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    Comment number 3.

    Yes Noreen, you are right I’m Pembrokeshire born and bred and was brought up a stone’s throw from the shore of the Harbour. My grandfather was a boatbuilder and we always had a boat and I was probably afloat on the Harbour before I could walk.
    In my youth, the only jetty was the one at Newton Noyes where ships would come to load ammunition. That jetty was built in 1872 as part of a shipbreaking operation but taken over as the RN Armaments Depot in 1934. The harbour looked much bigger in those days before the Jetties at South Hook, Gellyswick, Popton, Ferry Cwm and just west of the Weare were built, they have had the effect of ‘compressing’ that stretch of the harbour into its deep-water channel. Productive farmland formed a backdrop to the estuary and there were no refinery or power station stacks. Magnificent it was.
    The greatest change has been to that part of the coast between Popton Point and Pennar Gut. The shingle beach at Bulwell is now totally hemmed in by steel piles, the little shingle cove that was Ferry Cwm no longer exists – it was where the shore arm of the Regent Jetty was brought ashore. Pwllcrochan Flats were a favourite cockling ground for people in small boats from Milford, Hazelbeach, Pembroke Dock, Pennar and Llanreath and at the end of Pwllcrochan ridge were huge mussel beds.
    In Pennar Gut West Pennar Pill, formerly one of the most important areas for over-wintering waterfowl in West Wales, was destroyed to build the oil fired power station now being replaced by the gas-fired one. I once mowed hay in fields adjacent to this pill but these fields and West Pennar farmhouse which dated from Tudor times are now gone.
    I am fortunate in having old photos of some of these areas before industrialisation. And I’d better stop there before this turns into a thesis!

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    Comment number 4.

    You mention, Phil, that the pollution from the Sea Empress took six weeks to clear. I remember going down to Gellyswick the day after the accident and the great squelching mass of oil across the beach looked to be something that would never shift. Likewise, along the many beaches on St. Bride's Bay, you could see, for months and months, a grey oily film on the rock pools that again seemed as if it woud always be with us. But clear it did of course, and after the application of a lot of detergent, although my friend, Captain Bill Phillips, who worked for the Port Authority for years, always mantained that the pollution would have cleared maybe more quickly if left totally to the sea and the forces of nature.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hi Robert. I guess Bill Phillips - who I interviewed for my book Wales at War, talking about his time on the Arctic convoys - was right, nature would have run its course. The trouble was - is? - the oil would surely have to go somewhere and it would simply have washed up on someone elses beach. Or am I talking through my hat here?


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