After the disaster, the fightback, and an eco clean-up now praisedas a model of how to do it.
A decade after being stricken by one of the worst marine disasters in history, Pembrokeshire has staged a remarkable fightback with its environment and economy back on track, experts said last night. Although some environmentalists warn today the Sea Empress incident - which saw 72,000 tonnes of oil washed on to the coast around Milford Haven - could happen again, the overall picture is of an area recovering well. The Sea Empress ran aground around 8pm on February 15, 1996, causing huge environmental damage and prompting fears that the area's key economic driver, tourism, could be irreparably damaged. More than 1,000 people helped in the clean-up, and that operation is now being praised as a model of how to avoid long-term damage to the eco-system. A report compiled by the Countryside Council for Wales suggests the wildlife and marine population has recovered in the decade since the disaster. Jon Moore, an expert in oil spills and the author of the CCW report, said, 'There are now only a small number of places where signs of the oil spill can still be seen. 'These amount to small sections of shore where there are some tarry deposits and one or two places where it is possible that there is still some residues in the mud.' His report says more than 2,000 dead or oiled seabirds were collected in the aftermath of the spill. It found that the decline in numbers were temporary and the long-term upward trend in Wales' seabird populations continues. The oil that drifted into Carmarthen Bay is known to have killed at least 3,500 of the common scoter but the report suggests numbers recovered to pre-spill level within three years. Dolphins and seals were found to be largely unaffected. Onshore, where the oil created massive disruption to the food chain, the report finds most areas returned to normal within five years, although it adds that in some places 'some lichens and rock pools have not yet recovered completely. These areas are very small compared to the area that was impacted'. A more cautionary note was struck by the environment charity WWF Cymru, which has compiled its own report. It warns that although lessons have been learnt, the nearest emergency towing vessel is nine hours away from Milford Haven, in Falmouth. There have been other improvements, including the availability of better data on tides and sea conditions off the Welsh coast, thanks to computer software. Earlier this week UK Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced that islands off the Pembrokeshire coast, home to vulnerable wildlife, would become one of 32 Marine Environmental High Risk Areas around the UK. The Pembrokeshire economy is estimated to have lost up to pounds 28m in tourism revenue as a result, but Jonathan Jones, chief executive of the Wales Tourist Board, said last night the event helped 'galvanise' the area into investing in recovery. He said, 'The oil spillage could not have come at a worse time for the area, just in the run-up to Easter. 'It must have been very worrying for local tourism operators but it is a tribute to their resilience and optimism and the dynamism of the Pembrokeshire County Council and a number of other agencies and organisations that the massive clean-up was carried out with such speed and efficiency. 'Visitors who came found little evidence of the event and, although a study by Cardiff Business School set the loss in local tourism revenues at around pounds 20m but possibly as much as pounds 28m - between 12.5% and 17.5 % - local operators remained cheerful, and helped us in our campaign to show how a disaster of potentially huge proportion had been greatly mitigated, if not averted.' He added, 'This event and the impact of foot-and-mouth galvanised the local tourism industry into making the most of its assets, the grant regime to help it invest in upgrading and to project the best possible image of itself with the result that the area now enjoys a period of buoyancy in line with the rest of Wales.' Plans are under way to ship liquid natural gas (LNG) into Milford Haven. A massive LNG processing plant is being built near there which could provide up to a quarter of Britain's gas supply. Opponents of the scheme say no full safety assessment has been done on whether ships carrying LNG can sail into the harbour.: Changes at Milford Haven since Sea Empress:Vessels bigger than 50,000 tonnes, (or 25,000 tonnes if carrying noxious cargo), now have to be accompanied by escort tugs. The number of tugs in Milford Haven is now increased due to the imminent introduction of LNG imports. The Haven is now monitored by a new port control system, making more use of radar. Port control operators can monitor everything going on in the waterway much more effectively. Shipping agents and oil terminal operators can even book online. Training for pilots and Port Control staff was reviewed after the Sea Empress inquiry, which found training had been inadequate. A rigorous regime is now undertaken, with computer simulators being used much more, especially at Fleetwood Nautical College. Port Control staff are refreshed every three years. After a full risk assessment of all its activities, Milford Haven Port Authority has put in place a safety management system, designed to minimise the risk of problems. It is in line with the UK's Port Marine Safety Code Far fewer tankers visiting the haven are now single-hulled, especially large ones such as the Sea Empress. It is now more expensive for single-hulled tankers to dock, and they are being phased out. Two pilots must now be on board vessels of more than 120,000 tonnes. Only one was aboard the Sea Empress. Computer models, (tidal atlases), which analyse the unpredictable and strong tides off Pembrokeshire, have been created and are now in regular use. There is now a greater scientific understanding of the impacts of oils spills on marine species - information which could prove invaluable in the event of future spills.: FROM PAGE 15: Last year in Milford Haven:There were 68 incidents reported, some of them, 'near misses,' to Milford Haven Port Authority. All have been investigated. In 2005 there were 28 cases of pollution reported to the authority although this resulted in a total of just 473 litres of spillage. Of that, 306 litres came from fishing boats re-fuelling.: Ferry accident near site of disaster:Investigations are under way to find out how a ferry hit a navigational marker near the site of the Sea Empress disaster. A Panamanian ship, the Boa Vista, was transporting Belgian tanks, equipment and personnel to Pembroke Port in the Milford Haven harbour when she hit the fixed, seven-metre flash- ing beacon at 4.30pm on Sunday. The ship suffered only minimal damage, and there were no injuries. A spokesman for Milford Haven Port Authority said it appeared it had overrun the jetty it had been due to stop at, and that investigations were under way.: 'There were big salvage errors made but it was remarkable how everyone came together':Nick Ainger, the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, is a former oil terminal rigger and a critic of the way some of the authorities handled the Sea Empress disaster. The junior Wales Office Minister tells Tomos Livingstone how the area has recovered since that fateful night in 1996 NICK AINGER is clear about one thing - the attempts to salvage the Sea Empress in February 1996 went 'badly wrong' because of failings in the chain of command. As the stricken tanker was being held afloat by tugs and the authorities were 'trying to make up their mind what to do', Mr Ainger, the area's MP, was pleading with the Tory Transport Minister, Sir George Young, to intervene. That intervention didn't happen, and high gales, followed by some of the highest tides of the century, battered the tanker on the rocks, causing it to spill more than 72,000 tonnes of oil on to the Pembrokeshire coast. Several things have changed since that day, not least the fact that the Transport Minister has a specialist adviser to help him make those difficult decisions. Ships of the Sea Empress's size are no longer allowed to enter the harbour less than three hours from low tide. There is now better provision of emergency towing vessels, although not everyone is happy with arrangements in this area. 'There were big, big errors made in the salvage operation, that resulted in thousands of tonnes being spilt,' said Mr Ainger. 'But I think what was remarkable was the way everybody came together. There was this compassion to ensure that those who had lost their living were taken care of.' And the clean-up operation, when it came, was straight out of the textbook. 'We had scientific, environmental advice about the best way to clean up the coastline, without the clean-up damaging the environment. There was a risk it could have done more damage. 'We know what it was like before the spillage, there had been a lot of monitoring going on. What amazed us was how remarkable the recovery was from an environmental point of view. 'There is a cushion starfish, thought to be unique to West Angle bay; there was a fear it was going to be wiped out, but it's actually doing better than it was before the spillage.' Tourism too made a swift recovery, he said. 'I remember the first bank holiday a few weeks after the spillage. The BBC did a broadcast from Tenby, they did a before and after shot, a week or so after the spillage and two days before Good Friday - it was absolutely wonderful, everything had been cleaned up and the sea was sparkling. 'That bank holiday weekend was one of the best Tenby has ever had, before or since. There was a great deal of loyalty to the area, people wanted to show their support. 'When it happened people were literally in tears, not just because of what they were seeing, but because of their grave fears for the long-term damage.' Changes in legislation being discussed in parliament will see the compensation fund that paid out to tourist operators and fishermen in Pembrokeshire expanded from pounds 60m in the late 1990s to pounds 620m. Pembrokeshire's tourism economy is now doing very well, he said. 'Overall the Sea Empress actually acted as a spur to the industry, to the Tourist Board and the WDA. They realised how important tourism was, and it acted as a catalyst. 'A lot of really good, positive marketing of the area was developed and it was extremely effective. It was quite remarkable and it has been built on since then.'