50 years ago, on March 18th 1967, the Torrey Canyon hit the Seven Stones reef in Cornwall and the world of clean up and oil spill response changed completely.
The vessel was one of the first generation of supertankers, and it was heading for a refinery at Milford Haven in Wales from Kuwait.
She had been chartered by an oil major, and the Liberian-flagged vessel, taking a dangerous shortcut near Seven Stones reef, struck Pollard’s Rock off the coast of Cornwall, gouging a deep hole into the holds of the ship.
Over the course of the next few days, oil drained into the Atlantic, but after eight days being snagged on rocks between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles the vessel began breaking up spilling the cargo into the sea. The wreck plunged the government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson into crisis mode.
Initially the oil spill of 117,000 tonnes created an eight-miles long which grew to 20 miles long within 24 hours, and eventually hit hundreds of miles of coastline.
The government allowed the oil company to pour millions of gallons of an unproven but toxic dispersant on to the dark-stained waters – the chemical had been manufactured by a subsidiary of the oil company.
At the time, the spill created a far-fetched chain of responses. Making it up as they went along was the best way of describing the response.
Initially it was thought the ship could be salvaged, a prospect supported by its owners, the Bahama-based Barracuda Tanker Corporation. Later, the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said Ministers considered towing it to the mid-Atlantic and sinking it. Eventually, they decided the best way of stopping the oil pollution was to bomb and sink the stricken vessel, whilst burning off the oil on the surface.
This approach was then given to the man in charge of the crisis, Maurice Foley, Undersecretary for Defence (Navy) – a title that did not suggest the spill was a top priority.
However, unlike today, the government of the time continued to insist it was right to leave salvage attempts to the companies involved. “Clearly, we have no responsibility in law for what has happened,” observed Foley as reported by several newspapers at the time.
The bombing raids began on the 11th day after the wreck, when eight Royal Naval Buccaneers set off from Lossiemouth in Scotland.
The RAF and the Royal Navy dropped 62,000lbs of bombs, 5,200 gallons of petrol, 11 rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship. A quarter of the 42 bombs missed the target and the newspapers were deeply critical of the hit rate at the time. As was the Prime Minister who wondered aloud to aides as he watched the destruction, how useful the RAF would be in a real conflict.
However, despite direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.
Eventually, the mission was called off for the day when particularly high spring tides put out the flames. The bombing was resumed the following morning and holiday makers gathered on the cliffs to watch the towering column of flames and smoke.
Perhaps most spectacular of all, the RAF Buccaneers were followed by Hawker Hunters and Sea Vixens, and napalm was dropped to burn off the oil. The resulting “ring of fire” sent up a three-mile smoke plume that it was reported could be seen 100 miles away.
Finally, on 30 March, the ship began to sink.
Oil pollution stretched from the area of Hartland Point in North Devon, to Start Point, south-west of Dartmouth. Another slick headed towards the French coast of Normandy.
The “abominable smell of oil” – as the Guardian newspaper reported at the time– could be smelt at Land’s End on Good Friday. Waves of oil broke on the shores near St Just in Cornwall the following morning, a week after the shipwreck.
Dozens of ships sprayed the oil with detergent since the crisis began, in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse it.
The British government also poured 10,000 tonnes of a BP-manufactured “detergent”, into the sea and on the shore. In some cases, barrels of the stuff were literally rolled off cliffs. Pathé newsreels of the time show soldiers rolling them into the water clad only uniform and gumboots.
The slick contaminated 120 miles of Cornish coastline. An estimated 15,000 birds were killed. Seals and other marine life also perished.
Covering some 1,000 square kilometres, the Torrey Canyon oil spill caused massive coastalpollution around Cornwall and the Channel Islands. However, the oil washed up on Britain’s shores amounted to just 15% of the total that leaked from the Torrey Canyon.
Wind and currents deposited more oil on the distant coastline of Brittany. Learning from the British mistakes the French used powdered chalk to attack the slick, which sank the oil much more effectively than the toxic British detergents.
In early April 1967, a huge slick hit western Guernsey in the Channel Islands. The oil was so thick that 3,000 tonnes could be pumped directly into sewage tankers. The remainder was placed in a quarry and where spill response teams carry out a training exercise each year.
The Torrey Canyon led in a way to the UK’s Department for the Environment being created in 1970. It Is certainly a recognition that the environment had risen to the top of the political agenda.
It was also the first time individuals had wanted to get involved and help protect the affected wildlife. People travelled from miles around to help over-stretched animal charities clean birds, in sinks, at taps and on forecourts.
The Torrey Canyon disaster did have some beneficial consequences. International maritime regulations on pollution were created.
As a direct result of the Torrey Canyon disaster, the IMO called an extraordinary session of its council and decided to convene a conference (MARPOL 73) to prepare an international agreement establishing restraints on the contamination of the sea, land and air by ships.
Deficiencies were identified in the existing system for providing compensation following accidents at sea, and it was clear that international action was needed to agree tank vessel design and construction standards aimed at reducing oil spills following accidents.
It was also responsible for a more positive international legacy, as the disaster led to numerous changes in international regulations.
The first was the Global Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Destruction (CLC) of 1969 and the Fund Convention (1992). This imposed strict liability on ship owners without the need to prove negligence.
For the first time, ship owners became strictly liable, rather than liable only through proven negligence. Environmental protection laws requiring new ship designs were adopted.
Initiatives involving ship design eventually culminated in double-hull requirements as well as new cleaning and maintenance procedures (MARPOL 73/78 and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990).
Oil spill contingency plans, something that did not exist in 1967, are now in place around the UK coastline and in many other parts of the world who have also learnt the lesson of spill response.
Specialist advisors such as ITOPF now exist specifically to advise tanker operators. Specialist independent oil spill response companies now exist to assist oil companies at a moment’s notice if there is a marine oil spill.
On rocky coasts, spilled oil is considered best left alone, whilst in more vulnerable areas such as salt marshes, booms are deployed. The dispersants deployed today in the event of a spill are much less toxic, and rarely used at the shore.
The UK Government also changed its procedures. Responsibility for dealing with marine pollution in UK waters was eventually centralised in a Marine Pollution Control Unit, which was incorporated within Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG), as well as for marine casualties around the U.K.
Following the Sea Empress disaster at Milford Haven in 1996, a new post was created. That of SOSREP (short for The Secretary of State’s Representative in Maritime Salvage and Intervention) who is the final arbiter of at-sea decision making to ensure a successful salvage. This post and HMCG are now managed within the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA).
The International Maritime Organization recently said that many of the measures to prevent a spill employed by today’s shipping industry, such as double hulls and duplicate navigation controls, can be traced back to this disaster of 1967.
Industry statistics show the number of shipping spills worldwide is down 90% since the 1970s; 99.9% of crude oil last year was delivered safely.