The oil spill

The oil refining industry became established around Milford Haven during the early 1960's. The naturally deep waters provide berthage for even the largest crude oil supertankers. Over the years, a succession of oil spills has affected the waters of the Haven and the adjacent Pembrokeshire coast.

The Sea Empress (14K JPEG image) incident caused what has been by far the largest oil spill in the region, involving the release of the order of 70,000 tonnes of North Sea light crude. She was first holed just outside the mouth of Milford Haven on 15th February, 1996. Further damage was sustained and more cargo released during the ensuing days. The vessel was recovered and towed into Milford Haven, still leaking oil, on the 21st February. Six weeks later the vessel was towed out of the region to a shipyard in Belfast.

Satellite image (13K GIF image) taken at 0808 GMT on the 21st February 1996 of the South-West Wales coast during the height of the incident. The image is a 1km AVHRR image processed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Satellite Receiving Station at Dundee University, and made available by the Regional Remote Sensing Centre, Geography Department, University of Wales Swansea. It is a composite of bands 2, 4 and 5 and shows a long streak of oil spreading eastwards along the coast towards Caldey Island. Note that the warmer water along the coastline further east towards the Gower Peninsula should not be misinterpreted as oil, even though it appears to be of a similar colour on this satellite image.

The scale of pollution approached that of the Torrey Canyon (also bound for Milford) which spilled 117,000 tonnes of oil around Cornwall in March, 1967.

In March, 1978, the Amoco Cadiz was wrecked off the Brittany coast, causing the worlds worst oil tanker spill to date, involving 223,000 tonnes of crude oil.

Crude oil in the sea

Oil pollution following the Sea Empress spill

The clean-up operation

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University of Wales Swansea School of Biological Sciences Home Page

Authors: Peter Dyrynda, Rob Symberlist
Contributor: Richard Lucas, Regional Remote Sensing Centre
Update: 22/1/98

1996-2000 P.E.J.Dyrynda and R.C.Symberlist. All rights reserved