Whilst I was studying for my degree at UWCN in the mid 1990s, the South Wales coastline suffered one of its worst recorded environmental disasters. On 15 February 1996, "The Sea Empress" oil tanker (pictured left) was en route to the oil terminal near Pembroke Dock when she ran aground near St Ann's Head. Over the course of one week 72,000 tonnes of crude oil leaked out of the stricken vessel, which sustained further substantial damage during the attempts to refloat it. The environmental impact was hugely devastating as Wikipedia describes:-
"The Sea Empress disaster occurred in Britain's only coastal national park and in one of only three UK marine nature reserves. The tanker ran aground very close to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm - both national nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and special protection areas and home to Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Great Cormorants, Kittiwakes, European Storm-petrels, Common Shags and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Birds at sea were hit hard during the early weeks of the spill, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Pembrokeshire grey seal population didn't appear to be affected too much and impacts to subtidal wildlife were limited. However, much damage was caused to shorelines affected by bulk oil. Shore seaweeds and invertebrates were killed in large quantities. Mass strandings of cockles and other shellfish occurred on sandy beaches. Rock pool fish were also affected. However, a range of tough shore species were seen to survive exposure to bulk oil and lingering residues. A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford Haven. According to the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), over 70% of released guillemots died within 14 days. Just 3% survived two months and only 1% survived a year."
I remember being on a rail replacement bus on the way to Newport and sitting next to a UK Government environmental scientist who was travelling to the scene to gauge the enormity of the situation. I remember visiting Tenby six months after the disaster and the clean up operation had achieved incredible results. Whilst some of the rocks had a darkened shade it was only once you had dug into the sand that the water under the surface had a slightly oily film to it. It took 5 years for the environment to fully recover and for the decimated wildlife to return to some semblance of normality.
I was reminded of the disaster this week when a small cargo ship, the MV Carrier (pictured left), ran aground off the North Wales coast yesterday. Whilst it is a much smaller vessel than The Sea Empress, it is also leaking oil from its ruptured fuel tanks. Despite the strong winds that are currently battering the ship all efforts are being taken to ensure that the environmental damage is kept to a minimum. Whilst the environmental impact on paper may not be as costly as "The Sea Empress" hopefully they can prevent another marine disaster from occurring.