“I saw this huge ship sailing and I thought he’s in rather close, I hope he knows what he’s doing,” recalled Gladys Perkins of the day 50 years ago, when Britain experienced its worst ever environmental disaster.
Torrey Canyon oil spill 1967 - in pictures
The ship was the Torrey Canyon, one of the first generation of supertankers, and it was nearing the end of a journey from Kuwait to a refinery at Milford Haven in Wales. The BP-chartered vessel ran aground on a rock between the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End in Cornwall, splitting several of the tanks holding its vast cargo of crude oil.
“I just could not believe it. They’d hit the Seven Stones [reef] in broad daylight,” said the 90-year old resident of St Martin’s, the northernmost of the isles. What followed that night was an oil spill eight-miles long which grew to 20 miles long within 24 hours, and later hit hundreds of miles of coastline.
It remains Britain’s biggest oil spill at up to 117,000 tonnes, or 1,231-times more than the amount leaked by a BP North Sea platform last year.
The ripples from the spill are still felt 50 years on. An unknown quantity of the oil remains in a Guernsey quarry, where spill response teams carry out a training exercise each year.
Today’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the environmental groups with millions of members are also partly a product of the incident. So is the way that authorities react to spills, and the shipping industry’s modern failsafe measures.
At the time, the crisis ignited an incredible chain of responses. The government, led by prime minister and Scilly Isles holidayer Harold Wilson, unleashed RAF bombers to sink the wreck and released thousands of tonnes of detergent that proved toxic to marine life.
From the archive: the Torrey Canyon oil spill disaster of 1967
“The cure was worse than the malady,” said Stephen J Hawkins, a scientist at the Plymouth-based Marine Biological Association, which studied the spill’s impact on wildlife and habitats. “Today people are better prepared. Then, people didn’t know, they were making it up as they went along.”
After the ship hit the reef on 18 March 1967, the government and the Royal Navy weighed their options, under pressure to act and protect south coast beaches which the tourist industry would depend on that summer.
Initially it was thought the ship could be salvaged, a prospect supported by its owners, the Bahama-based Barracuda Tanker Corporation. Later, the home secretary, Roy Jenkins, said ministers considered towing it to to the mid-Atlantic and sinking it. Eventually, they decided the best way of stopping the oil pollution was to bomb and sink the stricken vessel.
Ten days after the supertanker began leaking, on 28 March, Buccaneer bombers took off with the mission of sending the Torrey Canyon to the seabed. “From the hill at the back of St Martin’s we had a grandstand view of these planes going over. Then there was a huge pall of horrible, black smoke,” said Perkins.
Only 23 of the 41 1,000lb bombs dropped in Operation Oil Buster actually hit the huge target. However, “the navy made an efficient job of it, providing a ‘spectacular’ not seen since the war,” wrote Guardian reporter, Dennis Barker, who passed away in 2015.
Perhaps most spectacular of all, the RAF Buccaneers were followed by Hawker Hunters and Sea Vixens, and napalm was dropped in an effort to burn off the oil. The resulting “ring of fire” sent up a three-mile smoke plume that it was reported could be seen 100 miles away. Finally, on 30 March, the ship began to sink.
The government also poured 10,000 tonnes of a BP-manufactured “detergent”, a crude first generation dispersant, into the sea and on the shore. In some cases, barrels of the stuff were literally rolled off cliffs.
“BP, whose oil it was, was selling detergent in industrial quantities which was getting poured over the beaches, killing off the microorganisms which would have broken down the oil,” said Tony Soper, now 88, who reported on the story for the Western Morning News.
Hawkins, who has just this week been taking samples at Porthleven in West Cornwall, found that areas where the detergents were not used, because of concerns over seals, recovered in two to three years, compared with the 13-14 years where the detergents were deployed.
“By the time the oil got to Guernsey, they didn’t treat things with dispersant. They learned from the lessons,” said Hawkins.
In total, hundreds of miles of coastline were affected by the oil spill, and about 15,000 seabirds are thought to have died. Soper said: “The tidal edge of the beaches in West Cornwall was simply covered by a thick carpet of black goo. It was a pretty fearsome smell.”
While the wildlife has recovered in the decades since, some of the disaster’s consequences are felt even now. Some experts draw a direct line between the incident and the creation in 1970 of the government’s environment department, the first of its kind in the world.
Dr Rob Lambert, environmental historian at the University of Nottingham, said: “Torrey Canyon led inexorably in a way to the Department for the Environment. It was a recognition that the environment had risen up to the top of the political agenda.”
Lambert also credits the incident with sparking the first big rush of environmental volunteering. People travelled from Bristol and further afield in an attempt to clean birds, in sinks at hairdressers, at dedicated animal rescue centres and reportedly even in prisons.
“We take eco volunteering as normal now, but this was the first big example in Britain. The tragedy was that most of these birds were beyond help and they died,” said Lambert.
Torrey Canyon made household names of some environmentalists, including a Durham University botany and ecology lecturer called David Bellamy.
The 84-year broadcaster said of the disaster: “Many lessons were learnt and are still being learnt. It was probably the first time that words like environment and conservation were voiced on the media, later to become so commonplace.” He remembers coming to public notice after being interviewed on TV by John Craven.
Government and industry responses to oil spills are much better today, partly as a result of Torrey Canyon, according to Hawkins. Oil spill contingency plans, something that did not exist in 1967, are in place around the coast. On rocky coasts, spilled oil is considered best left alone, while in more vulnerable areas such as salt marshes, booms are deployed.
The dispersants deployed are much less toxic, and rarely used at the shore. “The response is much more proportionate now,” said Hawkins.
The International Maritime Organization said that many of the measures to prevent a spill employed by today’s shipping industry, such as double hulls and duplicate navigation controls, can be traced back to the disaster of 1967. Industry statistics show the number of shipping spills worldwide is down 90% since the 1970s; 99.9% of crude oil last year was delivered safely.
While Torrey Canyon’s physical impact has virtually disappeared, there is one place it lives on, in the English Channel. Nineteen days after the tanker ran aground, the oil reached Guernsey’s beaches, sparking an emergency operation to scoop it up and send 3,000 tonnes of it, mixed with sand, to a granite quarry on the island.
Some of the oil was later recovered and burned for power in the 1980s, but most sat in the quarry’s waters, occasionally coating guillemots in oil.
Eventually, micro-organisms were deployed in 2008 to munch the oil, but after a large quantity of oil surged to the surface in 2009, more extreme measures were called for. In total, 160,000 litres of contaminated water was removed by buckets – but an unknown quantity of the Torrey Canyon’s oil still remains below the surface.
“It’s just looking like a pond now,” said Steve Byrne, manager of the GSPCA animal shelter, which has had no reports of oiled birds since 2012. “We had been called out for 45 years to help them, so it’s great news.”
Flop flop flop. The sound of a bird's wings batting futilely against the gloopy blanket of black oil echoes across the quarry. Then there is silence. A pigeon has crashed into this dark pool, 100 metres from the turquoise sea on the west coast of Guernsey. It sinks within seconds, resurfaces for a final flap, then joins the other small carcasses lying face down in the swirls of black slime. Since 1967, this deadly, oil-filled crater on the Chouet headland has acquired a new name: Torrey Canyon quarry.
On the morning of Saturday 18 March 1967, the Torrey Canyon ran aground on Pollard's Rock between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly. Over the following days, every drop of the 119,328 tonnes of crude oil borne by this 300m-long supertanker seeped into the Atlantic. Thousands of tonnes despoiled the beaches of Cornwall – and thousands more were propelled by winds and currents across the channel towards France.
At the time it was the biggest oil spill ever, and the first involving a new generation of supertankers. Looking back, the echoes of the BP disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico are loud and eerie. The slick imperilled a beautiful and popular tourist region. Inertia and dithering were worsened by the buck-passing of multinational companies implicated in the mess. And no one knew what to do. Even BP was involved: British Petroleum chartered the vessel to bring crude to the oil refinery in Milford Haven, Wales. But the Torrey Canyon disaster is not just a history lesson; it is living proof that big oil spills plague ecosystems for decades. Forty-three years on, the crude from the Torrey Canyon is still killing wildlife on a daily basis.
The Italian captain of the Liberian-registered Torrey Canyon was blamed for stranding the tanker on a well-known set of reefs. By nightfall, an eight-mile slick had slipped from its punctured tanks. The following day it was 20 miles long. In the past, tiny coastal oil spills had been cleaned up by mixtures of solvents and emulsifiers. These were called detergents, a deceptively cosy, domestic term for what were highly toxic chemicals. Within 12 hours of the spill, the navy tried to tackle it with them. Handily for BP, it manufactured these chemicals. The government warned that the stricken ship was "a bomb" and BP, as one man involved in the clean-up operation put it, "were making a bomb, literally, both ways". More charitably, the Guardian reported: "British Petroleum, which has the Torrey Canyon on charter but does not own her (and therefore disclaims any responsibility for the oil pollution) has sent all the detergent it can lay hands on."
The "sluggish black smear on the Atlantic" was an eyesore but Dutch experts dispatched by the ship's owners, the Bahamas-based Barracuda Tanker Corporation, itself part-owned by the American Union Oil company, insisted the ship could be salvaged. The government agreed, and its man in charge of the crisis, Maurice Foley, undersecretary for defence (navy) – a title that did not suggest the spill was a top priority – insisted there was "no question" of deliberately destroying the supertanker.
Dennis Barker, now 81 and still writing for the Guardian, was dispatched to report on the spill. "It was the first of those ecological disasters. Nobody knew what to expect. All that sunk in was that a boat was stuck on the rocks. The implications were slow to filter through," he says. Barker intercepted Harold Wilson, the prime minister, on the railway platform at Penzance. Wilson had been due to spend his Easter holidays on the Scilly Isles. "He rather liked to be at the scene of the action but it all seemed a bit slow by the standards of today," says Barker.
Like everyone, Barker most vividly recalls the smell. He leaned out of a helicopter to inspect "the greeny, browny gunge" in the sea below. "Suddenly I felt decidedly ill and I thought I was going to vomit over the Sun photographer. The stench was indescribable," he says. This "abominable smell of oil" – as the Guardian reported – could be smelt at Land's End on Good Friday. Waves of oil broke on the shores near St Just the following morning, a week after the shipwreck.
On Easter Monday, the tanker broke into two pieces. The oil, Barker noted in his reports, was winning. Using detergents to break up slabs of oil on the ocean was "like trying to pick up quicksilver with boxing gloves", he wrote: "There is this constant feeling that the government has fluffed the issue, and that an early political decision might have worked." The government continued to insist it was right to leave salvage attempts to the companies involved. "Clearly we have no responsibility in law for what has happened," observed Foley.
Les Hosking from Marazion, Cornwall, remembers the moment the government began bombing the tanker in an attempt to sink it and some of its deadly cargo, and burn off the slick. "We saw the Buccaneer bombers coming in. They dropped bombs and that didn't do anything," says Hosking. The press was critical because a quarter of the 42 bombs missed the target. Other methods also failed. Foam booms to contain the oil slick took ages to assemble and broke up in rough seas. Attempts to burn off the oil by dropping aviation fuel on it also foundered when high tides put the fires out. So, extraordinarily, the authorities dropped Napalm on the slick. "When that came in there was a sheet of flames," remembers Hosking. "I've never seen anything like it. The smoke went up into the sky for what seemed like miles."
The slick contaminated 120 miles of Cornish coastline. An estimated 15,000 birds were killed. Seals and other marine life also perished. An awareness of the environmental damage caused by oil "hadn't reached anywhere near the public consciousness that it has now," says Barker today. "It could have been an emergency from the last war. In an emergency you are not terribly worried about the pigeons."
Local residents fretted about their livelihoods in fishing and tourism, but were they angry? "Obviously there was a lot of anger and distress and then we thought, 'Let's just get this stuff off our shores'," says Hosking. Although the government got a kicking in the press, the attitude towards the implicated oil companies was strikingly mild compared with today's blame game. "If Wilson had been going on at the people responsible like Obama is, he would have been regarded as a bit eccentric or out of order," says Barker. In 1967, BP chartered the vessel but was widely exonerated. There was little hostility towards the ship's captain. "Today there would have been a lynch mob after him," observes Barker.
Residents of Cornwall did not realise it but they got off lightly. A freakish absence of prevailing south-westerlies in the weeks after the disaster kept much of the oil from hitting the mainland. The oil washed up on Britain's shores amounted to just 15% of the total that leaked from the Torrey Canyon. The vicissitudes of wind and current deposited more oil on the distant coastline of Brittany.
Nineteen days after the disaster, a huge slick hit western Guernsey. The oil lay so thick that 3,000 tonnes could be pumped directly into sewage tankers. "It was, 'We've got to clear our beaches, we're a tourist destination, right, there's a quarry, let's put it there.' It was a decision that had to be made very quickly," says Rob Roussel of Guernsey's public services department. Roussel remembers the oil on the island's beaches as a boy; he is now in charge of cleaning up Torrey Canyon quarry.
Moving oil to the quarry was a solution that created another problem. This dirty legacy of the Torrey Canyon has refused to disappear. "It stinks. It absolutely honks. Everybody's known about it but no one has wanted to do anything about it," says Jayne Le Cras, director of operations at the Guernsey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Because of its thickness and stillness birds see it as a solid surface, they land on it and then the weight of the oil holds them down. I would hate to know how many are underneath it."
A family of kestrels is nesting in the quarry wall and short-eared owls breed in adjacent pines trees. When passing walkers hear the flapping of stranded birds they alert the GSPCA but staff can't always reach the quarry quickly enough to rescue birds. Last autumn, a GSPCA officer filmed a pigeon struggling in the oil on his phone and posted it on Facebook. The resulting furore helped prompt the authorities into action again.
Guernsey's government says it has spent thousands trying to clean up the quarry. It was cleared in the 80s; more recently, 160,000 litres were taken to a processing plant in Hull. But each time the oil has been removed more has seeped from the sediment below, which cannot be dug out because the quarry was a German armaments dump when they occupied the island during the second world war. Last year, the water level rose and the changing pressure released more crude from the bottom. "The company that was responsible for the Torrey Canyon should be paying for it under the polluter-pays principle but the international laws weren't in place back then," says Roussel.
In 1967, as the cost of the clean-up grew, the British government sought £3m compensation from the ship's slippery owners. Eventually, the Torrey Canyon's sister ship, Lake Palourde, was "arrested" when it docked at Singapore. Legend has it that a young British lawyer was only able to board the ship to attach a writ to its mast because the crew believed he was a whisky salesman. The French, also seeking compensation, continued to pursue the company – and its ships – for many more months.
Meanwhile, long after the disaster had slipped off the front pages, Hosking remembers balls of oil, like giant Maltesers, washing up on Marazion's beach: "At the time we thought, 'This is it.' This is Cornwall messed up for the rest of our days. My first thought was, how the hell are they going to get rid of this lot? Mother nature is a very powerful thing. Eventually, I expect nature did most of it."
In fact it turned out that human ingenuity was not just powerless against the oil slick; it made it much worse. 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 never been studied. "There may be little point in spending many millions of pounds simply to convert an unpleasant but visible marine poison into another kind of poison that is insidious and entirely unknown in its effects," he presciently wrote.
In the event, the use of detergents turned out to be "the worst thing possible", according to Dr Gerald Boalch, a marine biologist with 52 years' service for the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. After the spill, the MBA's staff devoted all their days to studying it. At first, the chemical sprays seemed to work. "The detergents made it look good," says Boalch. "We thought at the time it was doing a good job because the oil was disappearing." But colleagues conducted lab tests "and it was realised that it was making the oil more toxic because it was accessible to organisms". At sea, the oil was made soluble by the detergents, which then meant it was taken in by more living organisms. On shore, the chemicals destroyed lichens and other beach-life probably for ever, says Boalch. A year after Torrey Canyon, the MBA published its conclusions: it was scathing about the disastrous use of detergents, applied by methods "that were largely ineffective, uneconomic, and wasteful of effort".
The Torrey Canyon disaster did have some beneficial consequences. International maritime regulations on pollution were created. A charismatic young botanist called David Bellamy was asked to comment on the disaster and became a television star; he, and the oil slick, helped raise awareness of pollution. If our growing addiction to oil was not questioned, our methods for tackling spills were. When the supertanker Cadiz spilt crude oil off Brittany in 1978, Boalch "insisted" the authorities should not use detergents. "They didn't and it recovered much quicker," says Boalch now. But the French had already proved wiser than the British when cleaning up Torrey Canyon crude. Rather than bombard the slick with Napalm or toxic detergents in 1967, they used powdered craie de Champagne – humble chalk, which sunk the oil more effectively than expensive, toxic British detergents. "It would seem that the French were successful in preventing the bulk of this very large oil mass from coming ashore," the MBA researchers concluded.
In Guernsey, in 2010, the authorities are also now trying to remove the last of the Torrey Canyon oil in an environmentally friendly way. Last month, they began to pump micro-organisms into the oily water, which is aerated by a small generator running 24 hours a day. This process of "bioaugmentation" uses naturally occurring bacteria for whom oil is a food source to break down the oil. The government predicts that the rapidly multiplying micro-organisms will have eaten the oil by the end of the year. Does Le Cras think it will work? "Proof is in the pudding, isn't it?" she says. "I hope everything they say comes true. It will be a great day for us when it happens."