When the Sea Empress ran aground, it led to Wales' worst environmental disaster. Robert Llewellyn Jones hears how Pembrokeshire has bounced back
SOME said the busy oil port of Milford Haven was a disaster waiting to happen. On the night of Thursday, February 15, 1996, they were proved right.
Shortly after 8pm the 147,000-tonne supertanker Sea Empress had begun the final stages of its three-day voyage from Grangemouth, at the mouth of the River Forth, to Milford Haven docks and the Texaco refinery.
As it was being piloted into port, the tanker, carrying a full cargo of North Sea light crude, ran aground on rocks in Mill Bay, just off St Anns Head, rupturing its oil tanks.
What followed amounted to the UKs third largest oil spill and nothing less than Wales worst environmental disaster. Over the course of the following week a total of 72,000 tonnes of oil leaked into the sea, polluting around 200 km of Pembrokeshire coastline, affecting 35 sites of special scientific interest, 20 National Trust properties as well as marine and nature reserves.
The tourism chief
Jonathan Jones, now chief executive of the Wales Tourist Board (WTB) was, at that time, the Tourist Boards communications director.
We realised an ecological disaster was unfolding before us, he said.
The tourist season was weeks away and we were worried this would kill the tourism market, not just for this area but the whole of West Wales, he said.
At the time we were going out after more overseas visitors and thought that news of this disaster would lead them to believe all beaches in the region were effected.
The WTB decided to enlist specialised support and contacted the public relations company that had handled the Brae disaster in Shetland.
Mr Jones said: There was no point in hiding the fact that if this oil did come on the beaches there would be serious problems. We were positive in saying that if it did come ashore we would organise a clean up effort.
With the worlds media encamped in Milford Haven, ready to sensationalise the whole event, the oil arrived on Tenbys blue flag North Beach.
That night was surreal, Mr Jones recalls.
No sound of waves against the shore, a black motionless sea. If it was not for the horror of the situation one could say it was a beautiful sight.
The reality was an all pervading stench and the looks of despair on the faces of hoteliers and local traders looking at their livelihoods disappearing before them.
That was the low point.
What followed has been described as a tribute to the clean up team and all who played a part in ensuring the beaches would be open by Easter.
Of the lessons learnt Mr Jones singles out the power of media.
We believed that for better or worse honesty was the best policy and transparency the proper course of action, he said.
Ten years on Pembrokeshire has more of its GDP generated by tourism than any other county in Wales.
The industry bounced back and responded to the rising demands for increased quality and constant investment from a demanding and well informed public.
The Sea Empress disaster showed the importance of tourism in the economy of Wales, said Mr Jones.
It also showed that this particular industry is resilient and able to bounce back from any disaster, as the later foot and mouth crisis was to confirm.
The pollution officer
When the Sea Empress disaster occurred Barry Davies, now county oil pollution officer for Pembrokeshire County Council, worked as a highway maintenance engineer for the then Dyfed County Council.
It was, he recalls, a time of local government reorganisation, and he had been appointed to the new authority, which existed only in shadow form.
Nevertheless a contingency plan for the area was in place when the incident occurred and a response centre had already been designated.
Mr Davies said: All the relevant technical and environmental personnel required to respond to such an incident were on hand ready to deal with the incident at first light.
It was immediately apparent to all present that this was a significant incident. The national contingency plan set up by central government meant the local authority had responsibility for all onshore pollution, and government assistance to acquire the expensive equipment needed to deal with oil coming ashore.
Looking back what is apparent now is how well all parties concerned worked together in the face of 72,000 tonnes of crude oil that threatened an environmentally sensitive coastline and Pembrokeshires blue flag beaches, Mr Davies said.
With Easter just seven weeks away, priority was given to cleaning those beaches that each year attracted thousands of visitors, while the same time ensuring that any work carried out on the shoreline would cause minimal impact to the environment.
In achieving this the local authority were able to provide the necessary resources and, during the emergency phase of the operation, had as many as 1,000 workers at its disposal.
As a result of this disaster several lessons have been learnt.
Mr Davies said: From a local authority perspective it was how an incident like this affects its day-to-day operations and the deployment of its direct labour force.
He added: The local authority spent more than £5m and recovery of that money from the insurers took four years.
The port authority chief
The Sea Empress disaster was a catalytic shock to the Milford Haven Port Authority.
Ten years on that is the opinion of Ted Sangster, chief executive of the Milford Haven Port Authority.
Since then there has been a significant change in the way the port authority conducts its business and how other UK port authorities conduct theirs.
Mr Sangster said: If there are any positives that came out of the Sea Empress disaster, it is the way in which it enabled the port to review its procedures and address the lessons learned.
One such procedural improvement involves the escorting of large vessels into the haven.
Now a tug will go out, meet the incoming tanker and attach a line so that in the event of steering or engine failure the tug can help steer or even slow down the ship.
We have invested heavily in training pilots and port control staff, Mr Sangster explained.
Now we make more use of simulators than we did before. Their technology has improved dramatically so our pilots can now train on a regular basis at a simulator in the Nautical College, Fleetwood.
This now forms a part of their regular training, as does use of the simulator at a research institute in Holland.
Milford Haven Port Authority has also invested in new hardware.
This comprises two new pilot launches; one being built, the other completed three years ago.
New radar sites have also been installed and up-graded along with the radar and port control systems that manage the waterway. Dredging has been carried out and new navigation marks put in place as part of a procedures overhaul.
One of the lessons learned from the industrys standpoint led to the Port Marine Safety Count, Mr Sangster said.
This is a requirement by which all ports benchmark themselves against and demonstrates the way in which they comply or differ.
At Milford Haven we have fully adopted this and, as recommended, we have introduced a safety management system that forms the base of our risk assessment process.
This is audited both internally and externally to ensure against complacency.
From Milford Haven the message being sent out is a positive one, though Mr Sangster is quick to point out that nothing can ever be guaranteed or totally safe.
He said: For us its constant vigilance and learning lessons. We have adopted a policy of encouraging open declaration without any attribution of blame.
Any incident or near miss on the waterway is investigated and its lessons learned and acted upon.
Such procedures engender confidence in those who live and work around the port.
For our part we are always ready to take every opportunity to describe our system to people and show them what we are doing and in that way ensure such a disaster will not happen again.