TED Case Studies




CASE NAME: Wales Oil Spill

I. Identification

1. The Issue

On the night of February 15, 1996, a single-hulled vessel carrying light crude oil for Texaco -- The Sea Empress -- struck the mid-Channel Rock in Milford Haven harbor, Wales.(1) This collision resulted in Wales worst oil spill, with potential for environmental degradation exceeding that of the Exxon Valdez situation SEE EXXONcase. However, mitigating weather conditions turned the near-calamity into a low- to moderate-level environmental concern. Because of February winds and tides in the Irish Sea, destruction of wildlife and coastlines was less serious than originally speculated. The spill was not without effect, all the same: it dampened Welsh tourism and damaged Welsh fishing. It also had political impact. The Labour and Welsh Nationalist Parties have complained that the Tories reaction to the spill was unacceptably late.

2. Description

On February 15, 1996, the Spanish-built, Norwegian-owned, Cyprus- registered, Glasgow-managed, French- chartered, Russian- crewed, and Liberian- flagged Sea Empress struck the Milford Channel Rock in Milford Haven harbor, Wales. Nearly half the ship's cargo -- 70,000 tons of light crude oil -- spilled into the Irish Sea.(2) The pilot had attempted to steer west of the rock, which lay in the middle of the harbor. A strong eastward-tugging tide arose, defeating his efforts to keep the 147,000-ton vessel clear.

Prior to the collision, the captain and pilot had not discussed or agreed upon a plan for their approach. The captain, the chief officer and the helmsman all spoke Russian and were not fluent in English, raising questions about possible communications problems between them and port officials onshore.

According to David Rodger, a personnel and training manager with the firm Acourmarit, English is the language of the sea and new safety management codes require effective communication." Because most seafaring ships and port officials speak English, "all managers and owners of deep sea vessels must take English language training and the ability to communicate with a ship very seriously"(4).

The problem language difficulties can cause on the high seas is underscored in the Shetland Case. In that situation, the oil tanker's company consisted of Greek and Filipino officers, a Filipino crew, and Polish maintenance workers.(5) Both the lack of a common first language between crew members and the crew's inability to articulate in English played important roles in the mishap.

Problems with Flags-of-Convenience

Communication difficulties aboard vessels on the high seas are among the quandaries posed by sailing under so-called "flags-of-convenience." Such ships often are based in tax-free havens or countries with less-stringent operating standards. Registry companies compete to provide owners with access to cheaper labor pools and lower taxes and licensing fees. The cost of operating a ship from such a country could be 20 to 50 percent less than in the owner's country. Although the crews often are multinational, they are not necessarily from the registry country; frequently, the captain and first mate will not share the same language. Such problems, combined with "badly or untrained crews and cost-cutting on the part of the ship-owner can and do lead to disasters. "Often ships flying the flags of Panama, the Bahamas and Liberia are found by inspectors to have questionable safety." In recent years, the switch to flags-of-convenience has become more commonplace.(6)

Low-cost crews can pose problems. Sometimes members hail from nations where they have been ill- treated and poorly paid. "The policy of employing cheap crews often compromises safety to an unacceptable level, according to one report. Some seafarers buy into an employment agency, bribing an official for a guaranteed job, even though they may have never been on a ship in their lives."

Another criticism is that many of the ships in such fleets are aged. According to the 1995 figures from the Panamanian Flag Agency, 3,323 vessels in service and flying Panama's flag were more than 30 years old. In addition, flags-of-convenience ships are twice as likely to sink due to age and disrepair than those operated under the national flag of the owner.(7)

Such concerns have prompted the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations-funded body, to bring in new safety regulations. "It isn't the game as usual -- there is a change coming," says IMO Secretary-General William O'Neil. "In the next few years, the plans of the IMO should bear fruit. [No longer] is it going to be a simple thing like: 'Register with me and you can get away with murder.'" Among the changes the IMO is seeking to introduce are mandatory and universal training programs for crews -- who would be required to obtain recognized qualifications and regional safety inspectorates to make escaping detection harder.

Under the present system, national port inspectors check for possible safety hazards under IMO regulations. Ports have the legal power to impound a ship until proper repairs have been undertaken. However, such safeguards can be bypassed by corrupt inspectors taking bribes from shipping operators, says Bob Veno of the U.S. Bureau of Shipping.(8)

Ecological Damage

The area contaminated by the Wales spill is where half the British bird population spends its winter months. The British ecosystem could be profoundly affected for many years to come. The full impact on the wildlife will be evaluated by a monitoring regime now being established. Because large numbers of dead and oiled birds still are being recovered and because many of the bird casualties occur at sea, the monitoring regime is unable to expeditiously provide data evaluating the spill s impact on birds. Such data is expected by 1998 at the latest.(9)

There are no reliable models that accurately measure mortality rates for birds affected by spills. It is safe to assume, however, that not all birds that die are seen and counted by humans: In Pembrokeshire, the Countryside Council for Wales estimates that a reasonable mortality ratio is one to 10. For every bird corpse washed up on shore, 10 more birds die at sea. Richard Timothy, a Council spokesman, said, "when the current calm weather breaks, we expect an increase in the number of birds driven ashore."(10)

To date, 1,836 dead birds have been collected; 2,618 harmed birds have been recovered. Oiled survivors are being cared for by conservation organizations and volunteers at bird hospitals. A special unit with a dozen small pools is opening at Milford Haven, where inspectors will be able to test the buoyancy and fitness of the birds before releasing them back into the wild. But often the efforts of volunteers and conservation organizations may be in vain.(11)

According to Brian Sharp, an ornithologist specializing in sea birds, most of the birds cleaned up after the spill will not live more than 14 days. He said that "the internal damage suffered by the thousands of birds caught in the massive spill could not be reversed and would kill them within a fortnight." The thousands of birds being cleaned with detergents and released should be counted as part of the dead bird total, said Mr. Sharp.(12)

Although Sharp's accusation enrages many volunteers and conservation organizations, his view is not void of empiricism. Sharp, who helped construct the U.S. government's civil case for damages after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, has just published the results of his research on the survival rates of oiled birds in North America, from records covering 30 years of oil spills. Sharp compared the records of hundreds of rings recovered from birds that were cleaned of oil and tagged before being released. The rings are usually only recovered after the bird has died. His survey, the largest ever conducted on the survival rate of released birds, found that de-oiled birds survived 20 times as long as oiled ones.

Even though proponents of bird de-oiling may use this statistic as validation for their efforts, Sharp. points out that after looking at 30 years of ring recovery from banded birds, which had been cleaned and released, he found that most of them were coming back dead after a few days or weeks. Thus, Sharp concludes that the cleansing of oil from birds is not an adequate way for oil companies to manage or correct the damage caused by spills.(13)

The spill's impact on the marine ecosystem and seabirds food supplies is unknown. However, if past spills offer clues, harm is to be expected. What it means for British fisherman is that the already depleted Irish Sea will even be more scarce of certain species of fish.

The impact of the Welsh spill is likely to be far more severe than the spill off the coast of the Shetland Islands SEE SHETLANDcase. This is because the Shetland's disaster happened at a less sensitive time of year and was adjacent to the deep sea, i.e., Atlantic Ocean. The Irish Sea, on the other hand, is relatively landlocked and shallow. As a result, the spill's impact on the Welsh coastline has been far worse than the Braer spill s impact on the Shetlands' coastlines. Subsequently, the damaged coastlines caused a major dampening in Welsh tourism. In addition to damaging the Welsh coastline, the Milford Channel spill reparably damaged the Irish coastlines of Wexford, Waterford, and Cork counties. Because the damage done to Irish beaches was relatively minor, it is not suspected that Wexford, Waterford, or Cork counties incurred a major downturn in tourism.

There are indications such a spill might have been prevented through a requirement that tankers traveling the waters of the British Isles have double hulls. Several more minor spills had earlier occurred in the Milford Channel. This lack has become a political issue.

Both the Welsh Nationalists and the Labour opposition party complain that presiding Tories attempts to clean up the Welsh coastline and remove the Sea Empress from the Milford Channel rocks came too late. (14) "It was left to volunteers, often equipped with nothing more than a bottle of washing-up liquid and a sizeable dose of good will to try and save the stricken creatures from certain death."

Welsh nationalists believe that many important lessons can be learned from the Sea Empress disaster. One, they assert, is that Wales has experienced discrimination at the hands of the British government. The party seeks home rule or a greater degree of autonomy for Wales.

3. Related Cases

(1): BLACKSEAcase

(2): EXXONcase

(3): AZERIcase

(4): SHELLRIGcase

(5): ALASKAcase

(6): SHETLANDcase

(7): KOMIcase

Keyword Clusters

(1): Trade Product = OIL

(2): Bio-geography = Temperate

(3): Environmental Problem = Pollution Sea (POLS)

(4): Geographic Site = Western Europe

4. Draft Author:

J. Lynch (June 1996)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:


The British government is facing awkward questions about the disaster, not the least deciding who was responsible for operating the Sea Empress. In the House of Commons on February 22, Sir George underscored the Commons quandary by noting that the Sea Empress had been built in Spain, was owned by a Norwegian, registered in Liberia, chartered by a French company, and crewed and captained by Russians.(15) With all these parties involved, one is left to wonder: Who juridically should be blamed for the spill and responsible for its subsequent clean-up?

6. Forum and Scope:


7. Decision Breadth:

(8 possible plaintiffs/defendants: UK, Spain, Liberia, US, France, Russia, Norway and Cyprus)

The total number of Welsh plaintiffs has not yet been tallied. However, within Ireland, Wexford, Waterford, and Cork counties are each claiming damages of 100,000 pounds.

8. Legal Standing:


This case will be tried under British and Irish law. In Ireland, a "polluters pay" law exists.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Continental Domain: Europe [EUR]

b. Geographic Site: Western Europe [WEUR]

c. Geographic Impact: United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland

10. Sub-National Factors:

YES (Welsh Nationalism)

Some Welsh believe the extent of environmental damage faced by Wales is attributed to the British government's discriminatory treatment of Wales. The British Government, they contend, did nothing to speed cleanup.

11. Type of Habitat:


IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:


The alleged perpetrators face court action including possible punitive or compensatory damages. However, figuring out who will be responsible for these payments is yet to be decided. This case, along with the Braer case, is certain to place the IMO's revision of the flags-of-convenience principle on a "fast track." In addition, this case is sure to force countries contiguous to international waters to implement legislation, requiring tankers, docking in their ports or passing through their territorial waters, to be double- hulled.(16)

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


The two most heavily affected sectors were tourism and fishing. Regarding tourism, even after a massive clean-up of beaches, many hotels and guest houses in Wales remain underbooked. Nevertheless, following the coastlines clean-up, tourism began to turn around. It has not regained its level prior to the spill. In terms of fishing effects, British fleets were hindered by a fishing ban in the region laid on until May 21. A ban on shellfishing will continue until otherwise determined.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES OIL

b. Indirectly Related: NO

c. Not Related: NO

d. Process Related: YES Pollution Sea [POLS]

15. Trade Product Identification:


16. Economic Data

The spill has had economic impact via the drop in Welsh tourism and depletion of fish stocks.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


Due to the spill, both British tourism and fishing sectors will be less competitive.

18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:

Pollution Sea [POLS]

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species


Type: MANY

Diversity: The Pembrokeshire area is rich in its diversity of wildlife.

As of March 6, 1996, the Royal Marine's clean-up action reported the following species of birds had perished:

Species / # of Deaths


22. Resource Impact and Effect:


23. Urgency of Problem:

HIGH and 5-10 YEARS

The long-term effect on the Welsh ecosystem is yet to be determined. However, it should be noted that no species are believed to be in danger of extinction from the spill.

24. Substitutes:


Substitutes to petroleum are viable and sustainable resources, such as solar and nuclear power. However, the potential, of such resources becoming prevalent, is highly unlikely, because they cost considerably more than petroleum to produce and refine. With regard to fish, other species could be used as substitutes for those found low in stock.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


However, the spill served as a rallying issue for Welsh nationalists.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


The spill drifted over into Ireland's territorial waters and washed ashore in Wexford, Waterford, and Cork counties. The effect the spill has had on Irish fish stocks is yet to be determined.

27. Rights:


28. Relevant Literature

Berry, Brendan, "Oil Spill Beaches Face Easter Tourist Test," Press Association Limited, April 5, 1996.

______, "Green Groups in Mass Demands for Tanker Inquiry," AP News file, March 8, 1996. Dyrynda, P.E.J. and Symberlist, R.C., "Should We Wash our Hands of Oil Spill Birds," Associated Newspaper Ltd..

Friends of the Earth Homepage.

Lyall, Sarah, "West Wales Recovering From Huge Oil Spill," New York Times, June 2, 1996.

Mattingly, David, "Too Early to Gauge Spill's Damage to Welsh Coast," CNN, February 21, 1996.

MacLeod, Alexander, "Britain Mired by Flak After a Giant Oil Spill," The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1996: p. 6.

Mitchell, John and Martin, Alan, "Flags of Convince Signal Safety Alert," Gemini News Service, 1996.

O'Halloran, Marie, "Tanker owners face Pounds 100,000 claim," The Irish Times, April 19, 1996.

Victor, Peter, Newspaper Publishing PC, March 6, 1996.

Wheeler, David, "Tanker Spill Off of Coast of Wales has Killed 2,200 Birds," Reuters World Service, March 6, 1996.

Wills, Jonathan, "Sea Empress Spill Is Bigger than Exxon Valdez," Shetland News-Feature, February 21, 1996.

______, "Tanker's Russian Crew Were to Have English Lessons," Shetland News-Feature, February 20, 1996.


(1) Berry, Brendan, "Green Groups in Mass Demands for Tanker Inquiry," AP Newsfile, March 8, 1996.

(2) Mitchell, John and Martin, Alan, "Flags of Convenience Signal Safety Alert," Gemini News Service, 1996.

(3) Berry, Brendan, "Green Group in Mass Demands..."

(4) Wills, Jonathan, "Tanker's Russian Crew Were to Have English Lessons," Shetland News-Feature, February 20, 1996.

(5) Mitchell, John and Martin, Alan, "Flags of Convenience..."

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Friends of the Earth Homepage

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Dyrynda, P.E.J. and Symberlist, R.C., "Should We Wash our Hands of Oil Spill Birds," Associated Newspaper Ltd..

(12) Ibid.

(13) MacLeod, Alexander, "Britian Mired by Flak After a Giant Oil Spill," The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1996: p. 6.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Mitchell, John and Martin, Alan, "Flags of Convenince ..."

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