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Sea Empress: Exactly 27 years since Wales’ worst ecological disaster

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IT’S EXACTLY 27 years since Wales’ worst ecological disaster – single hull oil tanker hit rocks in the middle of the channel, holing her below the waterline.

On 15 February 1996, the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground as it entered the Milford Haven Waterway.

Six days later, the tanker re-floated and was towed into the harbour. In the days between its grounding and towing, the oil tanker spilled 72,000 tons of crude oil along the Pembrokeshire Coastline, within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

It was a Thursday morning the oil tanker was en route to the Texaco oil refinery when she became grounded on mid-channel rocks at St. Ann’s Head. Over the course of a week, she spilt 72,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. The spill occurred within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – one of Europe’s most important and sensitive wildlife and marine conservation areas.

Sailing against the outgoing tide and in calm conditions, at 20:07 GMT the ship was pushed off course by the current and became grounded after hitting rocks in the middle of the channel.

The collision punctured her starboard hull causing oil to pour out into the sea. Tugs from Milford Haven Port Authority were sent to the scene and attempted to pull the vessel free and re-float her. During the initial rescue attempts, she detached several times from the tugs and grounded repeatedly – each time slicing open new sections of her hull and releasing more oil.

Clean up underway near Dale, Pembrokeshire following the oil spill (Image PA)

RESCUE OPERATION

A full scale emergency plan was activated by the authorities. News of the grounding was first reported at 21:18 on the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News – just over an hour after she ran aground.
Over the next few days, efforts to pull the vessel from the rocks continued.

Assisting the many local vessels, tugboats were drafted in from the ports of Dublin, Liverpool and Plymouth to assist with the salvage operation.

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.

The Pembrokeshire coast is home to common porpoises and bottlenose dolphins.

The effects of the oil and chemical pollution on these species remains unknown. Significant numbers of both species were recorded in the waters off the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve during the spring and summer of 1996.

The main containment and dispersement of the oil slick at sea was completed within six weeks. However, the removal of oil on shore took over a year until the late spring of 1997. Small amounts of oil were still found beneath the sand on sheltered beaches and in rock pools in 1999 – three years after the spill.

Contractors clean oil from Tenby north beach after the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground on rocks Pembrokeshire Wales UK (Image: PA)

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE

The effects of the spill were not as bad as initially predicted. This was due in part to the time of year when the spill occurred.

In February, many migratory animals had not yet arrived back in Pembrokeshire for breeding.

Along with stormy weather which helped break-up and naturally disperse the oil, the effect on wildlife would have been much worse if the spill had occurred just a month later.

The spill would undoubtedly have been catastrophic for both the environment and local economy if it had occurred during the summer months.
Much of the Pembrokeshire coastline recovered relatively quickly.

By 2001, the affected marine wildlife population levels had more-or-less returned to normal.

There was an immediate ban on fishing off the coast of Pembrokeshire and south Carmarthenshire which had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry.

The ban remained in place for several months and was lifted in stages.

Many local fishermen received financial compensation for the loss of income due to the ban.
The spill occurred just a few weeks before the Easter break when many holidaymakers would be visiting the area.

Some sheltered beaches and tidal estuaries were still covered with oil, but the main tourist locations of Tenby, Saundersfoot, Pendine, Manorbier and Bosherston were superficially cleaned.

A large clean-up operation began as soon as the Sea Empress started spilling oil.

Volunteers and paid hands alike, came together to restore the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire.

In the immediate days and weeks that followed, one thousand people worked around the clock to rescue oiled birds and remove oil from beaches using suction tankers, pressure washers and oil-absorbing scrubbers.

The main clean-up operation lasted several weeks and continued on a reduced scale for over a year.

Workmen clean up the spill in Tenby (Image PA)

PORT AUTHORITY FINED £4 MILLION

Almost three years after the spill in January 1999, Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) was fined a record £4m after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement.

The cost of the clean-up operation was estimated to be £60m. When the effects to the economy and environment are taken into account, the final cost is estimated to have been twice that, at £120m.

Oiled seabird rescued for cleaning (Image: File)

SHIPS BAD LUCK CONTINUES

While the cause of the initial grounding was found to be due to pilot error, it seems the vessel, even under new ownership, could not escape her run of bad luck. While attempting to dock for scrapping in Bangladesh she was ruptured again, this time by a sunken vessel.

She was renamed a further four times before her final demise, known as MV Front Spirit for a while before being sold under the name MV Ocean Opal, to Chinese buyers.
They used her as a floating storage and offloading unit from 2004. In 2010, she was converted in Shanghai into a bulk carrier, and re-flagged as the Panamanian registered MV Welwind. In 2012, she was renamed for a fifth time: MV Wind 3 and on June 3 that year the 274-metre long vessel was brought to Chittagong in Bangladesh for dismantling at the Shitakunda ship breaking yard.

On the way to the yard the ship developed a crack in one side of its engine room following a collision with a sunken ship, Hang Ro Bong, when she was attempting to anchor at the B (Bravo) anchorage of the port.

The view from above: The scale of the operation unfolds (Image: Herald archive/MCA)

LESSONS NOT LEARNED

In 2016 former local MP Nick Ainger said that the lessons from the disaster had not been learned

He told BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme that the scrapping of the UK’s emergency towing vessel fleet showed lessons had not been learned 20 years on- The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it was felt the shipping industry should fund such a service.

Mr Ainger said: “We now have a position, 20 years after the Sea Empress, 23 after the Braer, where we have no emergency towing vehicles stationed around our coast.

“Ironically, other countries in Europe, in Spain, in France, Germany, Norway have got government-financed emergency towing vessels.

“We, with our huge coastline with all the shipping that we have coming not only in and out of Milford Haven, but around our shores from the North Sea carrying crude oil, we haven’t got a government-supported emergency towing vessel.

“I think that lesson should be re-learned very, very quickly before we have another disaster.”

An MCA spokeswoman said: “The government believes that responsibility for ensuring the operational safety of ships is properly a matter for the commercial shipping industry, working in partnership with the tug and salvage industries; it did not believe that it was appropriate for the taxpayer to fund this provision.”

She added that no vessel had run aground or foundered in UK waters, nor had any pollution occurred, as a result of a ship being unable to engage a suitable towing vessel.

Following the Sea Empress disaster towing regulations in the Milford Haven waterway were tightened. Following the lead from a Scottish oil terminal, Sullom Voe, ‘escort towing’ was started. Cory Towage sent a representative to Shetland to observe and report back.

At the time the Sea Empress went aground this practice had already started in the Solent for the Port of Southampton, If Milford Haven had done the same in time, the disaster would certainly not have occurred.

Further reading: The Sea Empress’s second accident

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Ambulance terror response fears in Wales over hospital delays

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Liam Randall, Local Democracy Reporter

AMBULANCE chiefs in Wales say they may not be able to respond properly to terror attacks because of hospital handover delays.

It follows a report highlighting the risk of “catastrophic harm” to the public if crews are busy at A&E departments during major incidents – this includes concerns about the availability of ambulances following a fire on a ferry heading to Fishguard last year.

The Welsh Ambulance Service service raised concerns after a mass-casualty simulation found it would have failed to provide an adequate response three out of four times.

The Welsh government said it expected health boards to prioritise cutting handover delays.

The tests were conducted after the Manchester Arena bombing public inquiry.

That found a host of failings by emergency services in the attack’s aftermath.

The warning follows the service’s claims some medics could not to respond to an explosion at Treforest Industrial Estate, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, in December 2023 because they were stuck outside Morriston Hospital, Swansea.

A major incident was declared after the blast in which a woman died.

Next week a report will be given to the ambulance service board alleging hospital officials failed to release crews from the hospital site.

Swansea Bay University Health Board denied this, saying ambulances were freed.

The ambulance service has questioned the effectiveness of release procedures.

Chief executive Jason Killens has written to Welsh health boards for assurances.

It fears it may not be able to respond to them properly because of hospital handover delays
The ambulance service fears: It may not be able to respond properly because of hospital handover delays

The ambulance report said if a major incident was declared there was a risk an “effective, timely, or safe response” may not happen.

“(This would result in) catastrophic harm (death) and a breach of the trust’s legal obligation,” it said.

The main reason for this was “lost capacity due to hospital handover delays”, over which, it said, it had no control.

It added it was not assured hospitals had plans to release ambulances effectively.

Welsh Ambulance Service operations chief Lee Brooks said it had plans to deliver an effective response to major incidents.

He recognised handover delays were a problem.

“Our ability to send a large-scale response to an incident may be hindered if our people and vehicles are not immediately released by emergency departments,” Mr Brooks said.

The report also highlighted two other occasions where the service had been concerned about ambulances not being released.

These included the fire on the Fishguard in 2023 ferry as well as a gas explosion in Swansea the month after.

Swansea Bay health board said it took its responsibilities seriously and had major incident plans.

Jason Killens
Welsh Ambulance Service boss Jason Killens says as many as 30,000 hours are lost each month due to waits to transfer patients to hospital

“These include agreed protocols to enable the rapid release of ambulances from the emergency department in the event that a major incident is declared,” it said.

“We can confirm that on the evening of the Treforest Industrial Estate fire our major incident plan was invoked and that we did release ambulances.”

Handover delays were raised in the Senedd last week after the health committee was told ambulance crews often see only one patient a shift.

Mr Killens said as much as 30,000 hours were lost monthly in Wales due to waiting to transfer patients to hospital.

Patient safety was at risk, he said, with handover times averaging more than two hours. The target is 15 minutes.

Sam Rowlands MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Health Minister said: “It’s not good enough for the Labour Welsh Government to just ‘expect’ Health Boards to solve handover delays.

“We need substantial reform of the entire health system to clear the backlogs of getting patients out of hospital as well as in.

“Our Welsh Conservative plan of NHS reservists, along with care hospitals will deliver that immediate support needed to enable the Ambulance Service to save lives.”

The Welsh government said it expected health boards to cut patient handover delays as a priority over the next six months.

It said this year it was investing an extra £180m to help health boards and regional partnership boards manage more people in the community and avoid ambulances and hospital admission.

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Joy as St Davids Cathedral Music Festival gets into full swing

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THE ST DAVIDS Cathedral Festival is in full swing, offering a captivating array of performances that have enthralled audiences and celebrated the rich tradition of music in the historic setting of St Davids Cathedral. The event bring world-class musicians in Britain’s smallest city, running from 24th-29th May.

The programme of events kicked off on Friday, May 24, with The Children’s Chorus and Band, and Vox Angelica, Vicars Choral and Choral Scholars by Candlelight.

On Saturday night, May 25, festival-goers were treated to a truly stunning performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) under the baton of renowned conductor Martyn Brabbins. The evening’s programme featured masterful renditions of works by Brahms, Sibelius, and Mathias, with the extraordinary violinist Inmo Yang delivering a particularly unforgettable performance.

Audience members and performers alike expressed their appreciation for the concert, with many calling it an evening to remember.

Photographer Chris Limbert captured the essence of the night, showcasing the cathedral’s breathtaking atmosphere and the musicians’ passion.

Earlier that same day, one of the festival’s most anticipated events took place: the ‘Choristers Unplugged’ concert.

This event, a favourite among the choristers, saw the young singers performing to a packed audience.

The concert featured a delightful and whimsical pink theme, with choristers donning costumes inspired by ‘Wonka’, ‘Barbie’, ‘Six’, and other popular themes.

The performance was a resounding success, demonstrating the choristers’ versatility and love for music of all genres. Special recognition was given to the Head Chorister, who was praised for expertly curating the programme.

Festival attendees Laurence and his companion expressed their joy at being part of the event, noting how the concert’s atmosphere allowed them to share in the choristers’ enthusiasm and appreciation for a wide variety of music.

The St Davids Cathedral Festival continues to be a highlight in the regional cultural calendar, bringing together talented musicians and appreciative audiences in one of the country’s most iconic and spiritually significant venues.

As the festival progresses, it promises more remarkable performances and memorable experiences for all who attend.

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Injured climber rescued from cliffs near St Govan’s Head

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AN INJURED climber was rescued from the cliffs near St Govan’s Head on Friday afternoon, May 24, in a dramatic operation involving multiple agencies. The climber found themselves stranded on the perilous rocks, prompting a swift response from coastguard rescue teams and an RNLI lifeboat.

At approximately 3.50pm, HM Coastguard Dale, St Govans, and Tenby teams, along with the Angle RNLI lifeboat, were paged to assist in the rescue. The lifeboat was the first to reach the climber, providing immediate casualty care. However, due to the climber’s precarious position, evacuation by boat was deemed impossible.

In a statement on their Facebook page, HM Coastguard Dale praised the collaboration, stating, “This was another great example of multiple agencies working together for a positive outcome.”

The coastguard teams then initiated a rope rescue operation. Using a rope rescue stretcher, they successfully extracted the injured climber to the top of the cliff. The climber’s partner, who was also on the cliffs, was safely recovered during the operation.

Once the casualty was safely at the top, paramedics took over, providing necessary medical care. The coastguard teams were subsequently stood down, concluding a successful multi-agency rescue effort.

The quick and efficient response highlights the vital role of coordinated efforts in emergency situations, ensuring the safety and well-being of those in perilous conditions.

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