Troubled waters – The Guardian

The Sea Empress salvage and clean up cost around £60 million; losses to tourism and fisheries are estimated at between £13 and £50 million; courts costs were at least £2.7 million; reports into the accident the same again and fixing the Sea Empress cost £20million, which puts the total bill at a very conservative £97million without even costing the environment, health issues or the input of volunteers and charities.The £4 million fine imposed by Judge David Steel on Milford Haven Port Authority this month, for its role in the Sea Empress oil spill (Feb 1996), has been hailed as a victory for the environment, a “clear message” that pollution incidents will be dealt with seriously and it is a record UK fine. But while £4 million sounds like a vast sum, put in the context of the cost of the “incident”; fines for similar accidents in the US and the environmental costs, it actually begins to look rather inadequate.

Most of these costs will ultimately be met by a pot of money collected from oil-shipping companies around the world, set up to share the burden of providing oil pollution damages – the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPCF). Money from the fund can be used to pay for clean-ups and compensation up to a maximum of £60million (a figure since raised to £110m for future spills). But no further money is available for oil spill compensations beyond this figures, even if the losses add up to more. The Sea Empress owner’s liability was limited under an international convention, to which the UK is a party, to just over £6million.

The fine dealt out to Exxon after their ship Valdez spilled 40,000 tonnes of oil, half as much as the Sea Empress, at Prince William Sound in Alaska, was a hefty $5 billion. The huge discrepancy between this fine and that for the Sea Empress is partly because the US legal system has got used to telephone number legal settlements, but also Exxon are a large oil company and, as was pointed out by Judge Steel, a port authority do not have equivalent funds. The fine for Exxon was doled out by a jury who were sufficiently impressed, or depressed, by the lack of wildlife they could observe on a field visit to the site. Responding to criticism for the size of the fine they had imposed, one of the jurors, is quoted as saying “well he can kiss my ass, $5billion is a chunk of change, but 11 million gallons is a chunk of oil”.

So what does a £4 million fine mean to MHPA? The authority is unsurprisingly “extremely concerned at the severity of the fine” and is considering an appeal. But one has to question whether such a fine is sufficient to make accidents like the Sea Empress financially intolerable for companies. Although it is likely that the fine will damage the MHPA for a few years, perhaps dent profits, it will not make them go out of business. Their projected assets for 1999 are £33million, and they have borrowing powers up to £30million. Whats more, the regulations of IOPCF, together with the conventions makes oil spills financially acceptable for the oil industry in general. The turnover for oil production in the UK in 1997 was £19billion. BP and Shell two of Britain’s largest companies each have market values of around £31billion – an oil spill here and there costing £100million a time will not really do them much harm.

But it is the non-financial costs to the natural world and to the people of Pembrokeshire which have really gone unaccounted for. Evaluating costs to organisms, let alone the aesthetic losses to future generations is extremely difficult. How much does a dead seal pup, or the heart-ache of people watching seven tides bring oil onto their favourite beach add up to? An environment agency spokesperson said that at the time of the incident, the morale of the people was “desperate”.

On 26 January this year, I visited one of the 35 Sites of Special Scientific interest which were oiled by the Sea Empress. One inch below the surface I saw a thick horizon of black oil in the sand. Rivulets of fresh water from the persistent Welsh rain were washing through the sand, and presumably over time, carrying toxins into the mudflats beyond. Just offshore oystercatchers, curlew and other birds were feeding, unaware of the threats they may face. At the end of summer 1996, 500 tonnes of oil were still believed to be stranded on the shorelines. Two years after the incident; in January 1998, a storm exposed several tonnes of oil which had been concealed in a subterranean ditch on Tenby Beach. Ongoing research by Swansea University has shown genetic changes, in species of rock-pool fish exposed to oil, which may lead to tumours. How the animals and plants of Pembrokeshire’s coast will fare in the long term is still very much open to debate and money is not available to fund all the research required to find out.

The settlement from Exxon has funded a £900million project aimed at researching the environmental effects and rehabilitating the coastline. That is the concept of “polluter-pays” truly working. Because the Sea Empress case was brought by a government agency, the fine goes back to the Treasury who were unable to tell me what the money would be used for beyond that it goes into a “consolidated fund”.

So what is being done to prevent such accidents happening again? Improvements are being made to the training of pilots and procedures for navigation of ships at Milford Haven and significantly, the International Maritime Organisation has ruled that all tankers must have a double hull, by 2025, and in the US they are aiming to have this done by 2015. But an option which is not being taken, is the recommendation of Lord Donaldson’s report after the 1993 Braer incident to put a salvage tug in the Western Approaches. This would improve the chances that ships like the Sea Empress could be brought under control. So far, the British government has failed to provide this safeguard at Milford Haven, although there may be a public consultation later this year. A spill on the scale of the Sea Empress is expected to occur every 12 years in the UK. At today’s prices, for the low estimated cost of this disaster, a salvage tug could be stationed at the Western Approaches for at least thirty years. Maybe, just maybe, its worth it?