Oil Disasters Through History: First of Ten

In the days leading up to the 6th month anniversary of the BP deepwater drilling disaster, GRN is highlighting nine previous oil disasters, to give historic context to what the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing, and will experience for years to come. Torrey Canyon, 1967 On March 18, 1967 the T/V Torrey Canyon ran aground on Pollard Rock of Seven Stones Reef, close to Lands End, England. The tanker was carrying between 860,000 and 904,000 barrels of oil, most of which was released from the ship, either to burn up in flames or wash up on shore. Overall, the oil slick managed to contaminate 120 miles of the Cornish coastline. Over 25,000 sea birds were oiled and died (due to oil poisoning, starvation or hypothermia and a lack of knowledge in rehabilitation methods). Many marine vertebrates were also affected. 90% of the Pilchard fish egg population was killed in the area surrounding the tanker due to the oil toxicity.For oil clean up, unlike today’s common practices of booms and skimmers, forty years ago the British Royal Navy and French government thought it best to rely on dispersants and other not-so-common practices such as hay, chalk, and even napalm. Forty-two British vessels were chartered to help spread over 10,000 tons of dispersants, mainly BP1002. On the coast, hay and gorse were used to soak up the oil as it washed up on shore. Beach oil was pumped, bailed and bulldozed off sand. In French waters, to prevent the oil from spreading onto tourist beaches, 3,000 tons of natural chalk containing stearic acid, known as powdered Craie de Champagne, were distributed. The chalk caused the oil to either sink or disperse away from the coast – one of the first applications of the ‘out of sight out of mind’ strategy used 6 months ago in the Gulf. To deal with the oil remaining on the ship, the Royal Navy decided to bomb the tanker, and the Navy spread napalm, sodium chlorate and aviation fuel to help burn the remaining oil.One of most visible legacies of the Torrey Canyon oil spill is a result of the quarry that acted as the disposal site for oil collected off the beaches of Guernsey. Up until this past year, the quarry was still filled with oil. The quarry had been cleaned in the 1980’s and 160,000 liters of oil were taken to a processing plant. Since the first clean up, more oil has seeped from the sediment below, refilling the quarry. A BBC news report called the quarry a “disgrace,” and commented on the thousands of birds that have perished in the sitting oil since its arrival in 1967. It isn’t until this year, 43 years after the oil hit the Guernsey shore, that authorities are finally taking action and permanently clearing the quarry of oil. Unlike the chemical disaster that was created in cleaning up the Torrey Canyon spill, this time authorities are trying to remove the last of the oil in an ecologically sound way. Authorities have begun a bioaugmentation processes, utilizing the naturally occurring oil decomposing bacteria to finally do away with this lingering Torrey Canyon symbol, for once and for all.In retrospect, the Torrey Canyon oil spill can be labeled a disaster not only because of the oil that was lost, but also because of the chaotic and unorganized clean-up methods exhibited by the government. The silver lining is that this oil spill, one of the first of its kind, served as a learning experience. With the oil spill occurring more than four decades ago, “an awareness of the environmental damage caused by oil hadn’t reached anywhere near the public consciousness that it has now” (Oil spills: Legacy of the Torrey Canyon. The Guardian, June 24, 2010). Authorities were blindly using the dispersants in concern for the aesthetic appeal for the tourists rather than the ecological health of the marine systems, “three days after the ship ran aground, Anthony Tucker, then science correspondent of the Guardian, warned that no toxicity tests had been carried out on the detergents being sprayed on the oil and their effect on marine life had ever been studied.” The spill drew universal attention to the use and effect of toxic dispersants because of the death of many coastal limpets, barnacles, and herbivores. Studies have proven that the areas affected by oil and not treated with dispersants recovered faster and with less overall damage than those doused in detergent. In a 1978 paper, eleven years after the spill, the coast was still experiencing “continued community perturbations,” likely due to the “liberal use of dispersants.” Due to a lack of scientific data on the ecological areas pre-spill, concrete information on the exact environmental impacts of this early spill are hard to come by. What can be said is that due to this disaster the English Government was prompted to update international maritime law and practice in order to be better prepared for the next naval disaster. The toxicity of dispersants and their long-term affect was also experienced and these chemicals are now better understood, and used arguably with greater restraint. Above photo: BBC World Service, Torrey Canyon QuarryAaron Viles is GRN’s campaign director. Follow him on twitter @GulfAaron. Stevie Fitch is GRN’s Gulf Fish Forever intern, and a student at Tulane University.

Scroll to Top