Milford Haven Port Authority gets record fine

The Milford Haven Port Authority was fined a record amount for a UK pollution case in the Sea Empress trial at Cardiff Crown Court on January 15.

The Port Authority pleaded guilty to causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991, and was fined a total of £4 million. The Authority was also ordered to pay costs of £825,000 to the Environment Agency, which brought the prosecution. Charges against the Harbourmaster, Captain Mark Andrews, were dropped.

“This case is an important landmark in environmental protection and the extent of the financial consequences of this incident will cause all those involved in oil production and transportation to review their procedures seriously,” said the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive, Ed Gallagher.

“More broadly, it will also cause those businessmen who cynically calculate that a bit of environmental damage and the usual low fine are a cheaper and more acceptable alternative to operating their factories and equipment properly, to think again.”

The Court heard that on 15 February 1996 the Sea Empress, bringing crude oil to Milford Haven in South West Wales, ran aground at St Ann’s Head at the entrance to the Milford Haven waterway.

Over a period of seven days – while the Sea Empress was grounded – about 72,000 tonnes of light crude oil was released, mainly at low tide. About 250 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (used to power the ship’s engine) was also released at this time and probably mixed with the crude oil; a further 230 tonnes was released after the tanker had been towed to a jetty within the waterway.

While the tanker was grounded, the wind varied between a moderate breeze and a near gale and initially (15-17 February) the released oil was driven towards the Haven. From 18 to 22 February (a period during which about 90% of the oil was released) the winds carried the oil south, away from the Pembrokeshire shoreline, allowing chemical dispersants to be used to disperse the oil into deep water. On 23 February the wind veered to the south-west and over the next few days carried residual oil to the beaches of Carmarthen Bay, mainly from Tenby to Pendine.

Much of the affected coastline lies within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and in the main area affected by the spill there are about 35 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, two National Nature Reserves (at Stackpole and Skomer) and, around Skomer, one of the UK’s three Marine Nature Reserves. There are also EC designated Special Protection Areas for birds, and plans for three Special Areas of Conservation are proposed by the government.

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