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Sea Empress disaster 20 years on

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Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 15.33.15IT WAS one of the biggest environmental disasters ever to hit UK shores and now 20 years on from the Sea Empress disaster RSPCA staff are looking back at the role they played in helping to save hundreds of seabirds and mammals.

Early on the evening of 15 February, 1996 the Sea Empress, a single hull oil tanker, hit rocks on its way into the Cleddau Estuary and the ship’s cargo of 130,000 tonnes of crude North Sea oil started to spill into the waters off Pembrokeshire.

The RSPCA launched a massive rescue operation in response to the disaster in an effort to save the thousands of oiled and dying seabirds that were so badly affected by the slick.

Scores of volunteers helped open and run a makeshift animal hospital – set up in an old industrial unit – where more than 7,000 dead or oiled birds were taken – while inspectors, drivers and wildlife centre staff experts worked around the clock to nurse, clean and feed as many of the birds back to health as they could.

“The rescue operation took a massive team effort,” said RSPCA chief inspector for the south west Wales inspectorate group, Romain de Kerckhove, who held the same position 20 years ago.

“It quickly became apparent that this incident was of a scale that needed national resources, and a roster was arranged that invited colleagues from all over England and Wales to become involved,” he said.

“Officers would attend, for a limited period, and would work extremely long days, responding to calls from the public, and patrolling beaches to search for victims of the disaster.

“They were accommodated locally, and would be replaced by other colleagues in order to keep the team fresh and strong. Some officers would actually sleep on camp beds at the temporary bird rescue holding/cleaning facility, in order to ensure that there were people on site overseeing the welfare of the birds 24/7.

“This was a rescue that involved teams from across the entire RSPCA, as well as countless volunteers who would work with us, and assist the RSPCA teams both at the cleaning and rehab centre, as well as on the beaches.

“It was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the atmosphere and being involved in such a worthwhile and much needed rescue operation.”

Richard Abbott, who is now an RSPCA chief inspector, was the officer on duty the night the Sea Empress ran aground. “I recall speaking to a Brecon RCC (Brecon Regional Control Centre) tasker who said they had received a call saying a tanker had run aground at Milford Haven and was leaking 30,000 gallons of oil.

I recall thinking, no chance, that’s never going to have happened, not these days with twin hulled tankers. I asked the tasker to ring the Coastguard to double check as I was driving and enroute to an emergency at the time, about 10.30pm ish.

“She rang me back about five minutes later and said to my astonishment that the Coastguard had confirmed the report. I pulled over and rang the chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove at home and started the response.

“I got back in about 1am that night and by 7am I had the call that I was needed to help set up the emergency response centre. A few hours later chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove arrived and took over.

“It was incredibly stressful for those three to four weeks, as we dealt with thousands birds and managed many rescue organisations. It was a steep learning curve.”

RSPCA inspector Rohan Barker attended the day after the incident with chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove.

“We spent two days putting together our response working with several organisations with very few birds coming in during the initial couple of days – but then the onslaught started.

“We worked 15 hour shifts collecting birds, setting up the cleaning station at a local industrial estate building provided by the council.

“Birds were collected by inspectors, animal collection officers and members of the public, brought to the station, initially cleaned and shipped off to RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre by a fleet of vans.”

Dermot Murphy, who is now assistant director of inspectorate at the RSPCA, was one of the convoy of ambulance drivers drafted in from across the country at the time of the disaster to help ship stricken birds from the Pembrokeshire coast to the makeshift hospital.

“I was an RSPCA Ambulance Driver in London then, with just over a year’s service. I was sent to Milford Haven with an Inspector for a week.

“I had never seen anything like it. So many birds covered in oil in a terrible state, they were still being washed up two weeks into the operation. The birds that stuck in my mind were the common scoter, which is a sea duck. There were so many of them, an incredible amount and in such a bad way too.

“We had a busy week and did a range of duties, from collecting food to feed staff, patrolling beaches looking for oiled birds and cutting up food to feed the birds. It was a massive cleaning operation.”

Inside the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre in Somerset Paul Oaten was one of the team at the ready to take in casualties as they arrived in their droves from the Welsh coastline.

“We took in around 1,200 oiled birds. at the time of the Sea Empress disaster. They were covered in thick oil. Most of the casualties were scoters, and they were very badly affected.

“Luckily we had a lot of volunteers that came in to help with the sheer volume of birds that were coming in through the doors every day. People were happy to come in and wash towels while others spent their days cutting up sprats (fish) for the birds to eat.

“Those that were tasked with washing the birds would be in teams of two. One would hold the birds, the other would clean it using Fairy liquid. They would have a pre-clean where we would try to get as much of the oil off as possible without stressing the birds out. It was so important to get the oil off their plumage, not just because of the feathers but so that we could try to prevent them from ingesting the oil and stop it from burning them too.

“A lot of the birds were emaciated because they could not feed so building their strength back up and increasing their weight was also an important part of the process.”

He added: “Every role was vital to ensure we could keep the steady flow of birds through the cleaning system and the sense of teamwork was immense. That is my overwhelming memory of that time. the teamwork. It was so uplifting. The days were long and it was hard work but we were all working towards a common goal of trying to save these poor stricken birds.”

WWF-UK Head of Marine Policy Dr Lyndsey Dodds said told The Herald: “20 years on from the Sea Empress, Welsh waters are busier than ever but management is still piecemeal.

“The forthcoming Welsh National Marine Plan offers the opportunity to strategically manage activities that can impact upon Wales’s natural assets and should include provisions to ensure that the risks to the most sensitive areas from both accidental and chronic pollution are minimised.”

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Police urge visitors to ‘check the rules’

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POLICE in Powys are reminding people to check the rules before they travel, as tourists from the Midlands, London and Bristol continue to visit despite lockdown restrictions.

Last weekend more than 1,000 cars were turned around by police in the Brecon Beacons after visitors attempted to access the area around Ystradfellte known as ‘waterfall country’.

Many of those stopped claimed they thought the rules around travel were the same as in England, while others had deliberately flouted them.

Seventy-two per cent of people reported for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions in Powys since March 27 have been from outside the police force area.

“I would like to thank the communities of Powys for their cooperation in recent months in complying with requirements of the Covid 19 legislation and also reassure them we are still working hard with our partners to police the restrictions that remain in place across Wales,” said Superintendent Steve Davies.

“Our officers have worked hard to engage with the public at every opportunity throughout these unprecedented times by explaining what we are doing and why, and encouraging people to make the best choices to protect public health in Wales.

“But where people have clearly flouted the rules we have dealt with them appropriately and issued fines.”

He said officers will continue to conduct stop checks throughout Powys and across the force area this weekend.

In England, people can now travel an unlimited distance for exercise and to access so-called ‘beauty spots’.

But the Welsh Government has said people must remain local – ideally not travelling further than five miles from their home – for exercise or limited leisure pursuits, and this also applies to anyone travelling across the border.

Wales’ three national parks – which include popular sites such as Snowdon, the Elan valley and the Pembrokeshire coast – currently remain closed to the public, as do all National Trust car parks and properties.

The latest Welsh Government advice is available at gov.wales/coronavirus.

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Coastal car parks at beauty spots remain closed

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THE RECENT changes in regulations reinforce that movement is restricted to your local area.

This has been identified by the Welsh Government as an approximation of a five mile radius from your home.

Members of two separate households from the same local area (not travelling more than five miles) can now meet outdoors, as long as they maintain social distancing.

You should aim to meet another local household as close to your home as possible. Always take care to maintain social distancing and hand hygiene.

Pembrokeshire County Council car parks at attractions and beauty spots (including public toilets) currently remain closed so you should check before travelling.

They remain closed as a clear message that travel remains restricted, and associated tourism amenities remain closed.

A critical point for all to note is that lifeguards are not currently patrolling beaches and toilets and other facilities are not open.

Full details of the car parking facilities which remain open for the local community can be found on the Council’s website:
https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/emergency-planning/service-changes

Councillor Phil Baker, Cabinet Member for Infrastructure said: “The emphasis is on careful, structured unlocking, and not to put in danger any of the recovery measures that relate to public health and not to undo the safeguarding that lockdown has delivered.

“We will continue to review and monitor this carefully and take cautious, measured steps only to provide the benefits of the eased regulations without putting our residents at risk.”

Motorists are reminded not to contravene parking restrictions – such as yellow lines – where they exist as parking enforcement is still being undertaken.

As with other service areas, car parks will be reviewed in line with current advice.

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Pembrokeshire County Council Leaders coronavirus update

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PEMBROKESHIRE County Council Leader, Councillor David Simpson, has provided a further coronavirus update for Tuesday, 2nd June, as follows:

‘I want to thank everyone for the continued support to myself, Elected Members and officers of the Authority.

‘We have all experienced many challenges over the years but this continued struggle is very testing for all. We continue collectively to work together to ensure we, in Pembrokeshire, remain safe and avoid catching Covid-19

‘It is clear that we still have to remain “local”. There is no remit for travelling outside our local community. You will have read and heard clear guidance on only travelling five miles from home.

‘As always and where you can, please exercise from your home. The more we can do to reduce the spread of the virus, the better we will all fare in the long term.

‘I want to highlight that today marks the 50 th anniversary of the collapse of the Cleddau Bridge. This was indeed a tragedy as lives were lost and it is a sad chapter in Pembrokeshire’s history.

‘As in any incident, people can, and do, rebuild and also learn lessons. After Covid-19 the new “normality” will look different from what we were used to. But we will all move forward and regain Confidence.

‘I’m sure, like you, I question how I should be tackling this issue. Should I be doing more? The answer is simple and direct – we need to ensure social distancing is maintained; wash our hands regularly and listen to the advice given by experts.

‘Remember: ‘Stay Strong and Stay Local.’

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