Sea Empress Disaster

A massive oil spill in Pembrokeshire dominated the news in the first months of 1996.

1996 Diary:

Thursday 15 February 1996, 8.07 pm.
The single-hulled 'Sea Empress', with 131,000 tonnes of North Sea crude oil aboard, ran aground just outside the entrance to Milford Haven. The initial grounding released 2500 tonnes of oil into the sea. The weather was reasonably calm, and the tanker was refloated on the rising tide.

Friday 16 February. Ship held in position at the entrance of Milford Haven by 4 tugs. The plan was to transfer oil to other vessels; this had been accomplished from smaller vessels in calm weather before. With gales forecast it seemed that the problem was worse than we had imagined as the vessel could not be towed into port. The first 10 mile oil slick was washed ashore.

Saturday 17 February. The 'Sea Empress' was pulled clear of its original position. Problems began as the holding cables snapped and the tanker's engine room was flooded. It grounded again and in view of the previous record in oil spills a disaster appeared to be imminent. The plan to tow the tanker out into safer deeper water was not undertaken.

Sunday 18 February. The crew were taken off the ship in a Gale Force 9 and high strong-running tides. A Chinese tug got a line to the stricken vessel. The Sea Empress broke free of smaller tugs and became stuck on rocks. The motion of the sea moving the ship about ground holes in the hull. Disaster was now certain.

Monday 19 February. Smaller tugs took over but there were no plans to move the tanker. Instead it was intended to secure the ship in its position at the entrance to Milford Haven. Five tugs were unable to control the tanker and it drifted across the Haven entrance then ran aground for a third time. It was impaled on rocks and there were fears of serious damage. A further 20,000 tonnes of oil was leaked.

Tuesday 20 February. Despite the loss of oil and highest tides the ship was still unable to be refloated. It was estimated that nearly 50,000 tonnes of oil was leaked overnight.

  The oil reached Sandersfoot beach, Pembrokeshire

Wednesday 21 February. The ship was finally refloated at 7.00 pm, but the total amount of oil lost was at least 71,800 tonnes. 12 tugs towed the 'Sea Empress', minus more than half of its oil, to a berth in Milford Haven. The remaining crude oil was still leaking from ruptured tanks in the ship.

Thursday 22 February. Preparations were made to pump the remaining oil out of the Sea Empress.

Friday 23 February. The remaining oil began to be pumped out of the ship.

Saturday 24 February. The clean-up continues and the disaster was no longer national news.


There are no plans for a Public Enquiry. The Marine Investigation Board (MAIB) is conducting an investigation into the cause of the grounding and the planning, execution and direction of the salvage operation and its effectiveness in minimising the pollution. A separate study chaired by Professor Ron Edwards will investigate the environmental impact of the oil spill, including the consideration of the clean-up techniques. #

Sea Empress:  Official Report
# The Environmental Impact of the Sea Empress Oil Spill (SEEC)
 British Oil Tanker Disasters
Oil Tanker Disaster: Dangers to Marine Wildlife
Brent Spar
Sea Empress:  West Angle Bay

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