The grounding in 1967 of the supertanker Torrey Canyon on protruding granite rocks near the Scilly Isles off the southwest coast of England introduced the world to a new hazard: immense oil spills , especially from supertankers. It exposed current technology's inability to handle such massive quantities of spilled oil and the need for ship design that would help prevent them.
Although oil spills are tragic, each incident provides insight into the progress being made to prevent them. The Torrey Canyon accident pointed out needed research in the area of oil spills. These include the efficacy of storm waves, oil-consuming microbes , and time to heal the environment .
This wreck demonstrated the inadequacies of existing international marine law, especially questions of responsibility and liability. The international aspects of the Torrey Canyon case were complex. This American-owned vessel was registered in Liberia, sailed with a crew of mixed nationals, and grounded in United Kingdom waters, also contaminating the Brittany coast of France. The British government set precedent by ordering the bombing of the wreck in a futile effort to torch the remaining oil.
Efforts to salvage the spilled oil quickly proved useless, as the escaping oil rapidly thinned and became widespread. It was later learned that the most volatile parts of the oil evaporated within several days. Fortunately, this amounted to a large percentage of the total spill.
A number of crucial lessons were learned as a result of abatement efforts. Dispersants, which break the oil into tiny droplets, were inadequate and applied too little and too late. Once "mousse" (the term for water encased in the oil) forms under wave action, little can be done to break up this ecologically hazardous muck. One of the first actions in response to the 1993 grounding of the Braer near the Shetland Islands was the aerial spraying of dispersants on the rapidly thinning oil.
Use of detergents on the intertidal zone of England's resort beaches proved deadly to grazing organisms. The most effective treatment of oil-tainted water and beaches was discovered to be nature's storm action combined with metabolic breakdown by microorganisms . Efforts to clean oiled seabirds proved largely futile, as they succumbed to hypothermia, stress, and poisoning from ingested oil.
The French discovered an effective emergency tactic to lessen the damage. They used straw and other absorbent materials to sop up the incoming oil. They also protected a 100-year-old research section at Roscoff by making a long boom out of burlap stuffed with straw and wood cuttings, an operation dubbed "Big Sausage." To compensate for inadequate anchoring, students physically held the boom in place while the tide rolled in, with new troops periodically relieving those chilled in the cold water.
[Nathan H. Meleen ]
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Office of Technology Assessment. Coping With Oiled Environments. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.