Torrey Canyon – the Worst Oil Spill in British History

UK Oil Spills

Torrey Canyon – the Worst Oil Spill in British History

The Torrey Canyon oil spill, off the south-west coast of the United Kingdom in 1967, is among the world’s most significant oil spills.

The Torrey Canyon was built in the United States in 1959 and, at the time, could carry 60,000 tons. She was enlarged to 120,000 tons in Japan in 1965. At the time of the stranding, the Torrey Canyon was chartered to British Petroleum (BP). She was registered in Liberia but she was actually owned by the Bermudian Barracuda Tanker Corporation. This was a subsidiary of Union Oil Company of California, USA. An example of the tangled web of international shipping.

Efforts to lessen the damage to the environment involved the bombing of the wreck by aircraft from the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF). The impact of the oil spill was felt over many hundreds of kilometres of shoreline in Britain, France, Guernsey, and Spain. The running aground and eventual break-up of the supertanker left a damaging ecological legacy. 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. This imposed strict liability on ship owners without the need to prove negligence. The second was the much more prolific International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) in 1973. An introduction to MARPOL can be found here.

Until the Odyssey Oil Spill in 1988, the Torrey Canyon was the world’s worst oil spill, with somewhere between 25-36 million gallons of crude oil being spilt. Fortunately, up until the present (2016), it continues to be the worst spill in the UK.

The Torrey Canyon Stranding

At the start of her last voyage (19th February 1967), the Torrey Canyon left the Kuwait National Petroleum Company refinery at Mina Al-Ahmadi, Kuwait (later Al-Ahmadi) full to the brim with crude oil. The ship’s final destination was Milford Haven in Wales. She reached the Canary Islands on 14th March and the Isles of Scilly four days later.

As she didn’t have a scheduled route, she lacked a set of full scale charts for the Isles of Scilly. This, and possibly because she was using the less advanced LORAN navigator, led to a navigational error, and on 18th March 1967 the Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock on the Seven Stones reef in between the Cornish mainland and the Isles of Scilly.

Which Way Again - Oil Spills

Sorry But Which Way Again?

As the Torrey Canyon was nearing the Isles of Scilly, the fishing fleet was leaving harbor. With a collision turning imminent, there was some confusion between the Captain and the helmsman as to where the ship exactly was. There was also uncertainty as to whether the vessel was being manually steered or was under automatic steering.

The confusion led to the grounding being unavoidable. During the hours and days that followed, substantial attempts were made to get the vessel off the reef but these proved unsuccessful. Sadly, the attempts led to the death of a member on the Dutch salvage crew, Captain Stal.

Left A Bit. Right A Bit. Fire!

Following the failed attempts to refloat the vessel, the main focus turned to clean up and containment of the resulting oil spill. Detergent was deployed on a huge scale by Cornwall fire brigade and the attending Royal Navy vessels to try to disperse the oil. The UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and the Cabinet held a mini-cabinet session on the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose. They decided set fire to the vessel and the oil slick to restrict the catastrophic effects of the oil spill. The following events recall the best of British farce.

On 28 March 1967, the Fleet Air Arm sent Blackburn Buccaneer planes from RNAS Lossiemouth to drop forty-two 1,000-lb bombs on the ship. Then, the Royal Air Force sent Hawker Hunter jets from RAF Chivenor to drop cans of aviation fuel to help make the oil blaze more intensely.

Torrey Canyon

However, exceptionally high tides put the fire out and it took more bombing runs by Sea Vixens from RNAS Yeovilton and Buccaneers from RNAS Brawdy, as well as yet more RAF Hunters with liquified petroleum jelly to ignite the oil. Bombing continued the subsequent day prior to Torrey Canyon eventually sinking.

Unfortunately, attempts to make use of foam-filled containment booms were also mostly ineffectual, because of the high seas.

Later, in the aftermath of the spill, the British government was strongly criticised for its dealings with the incident, which was at that time, the most costly catastrophe ever. Both the RAF and the Royal Navy were also ridiculed for their rather pathetic bombing efforts, as a quarter of the forty-two bombs dropped missed their large, non-moving target.

The Environmental Consequences of the Oil Spill

50 miles (80 km) of French and 120 miles (190 km) of Cornish coastline were contaminated. All-around 15,000 sea birds ended up being killed, as well as massive numbers of maritime organisms, before the 700 km2 slick was dispersed.

Substantially damage was caused from the heavy use of the so-called detergents to break up the slick – these were first-generation variants of ‘detergents’ first formulated to scrub surfaces in ships’ engine-rooms, without any thought of the toxicity of their components. Several observers believed they were called ‘detergents’, instead of the far more accurate ‘solvent-emulsifiers’, to motivate comparison with more benign domestic cleansing products.

Some 42 vessels sprayed over 10,000 lots of these dispersants on to the floating oil and oil on seashores. In Cornwall, they were frequently misused – for instance, by emptying 45-gallon drums from the top of cliffs to ‘treat’ inaccessible coves or by pouring a stream of dispersants from a low-hovering helicopter. On the intensely oiled beach front at Sennen Cove, dispersant pouring from drums was ‘ploughed’ into the sand by bulldozers a number of times, burying the oil so well that it could be identified 12 months or more afterwards.

After the Torrey Canyon Oil Spill

Apart from the furor about the incompetence of the UK government, the British and French governments issued claims from the owners of the vessel. The subsequent settlement was the largest ever in maritime history for an oil spill claim.

An inquiry in Liberia found that the captain, Pastrengo Rugiati, was to blame for the poor decision in steering the Torrey Canyon between the Scillies and the Seven Stones. The first officer was also to blame for the ill-advised course corrections while the captain slept. Safer course alternatives had been discarded on account of the pressure to arrive in port at Milford Haven by high tide on 18th March.