50 years on from the Torrey Canyon disaster

Spill Response Expo blog post 1

It has been 50 years since the Torrey Canyon, one of the first generation of supertankers, ran aground on a rock between the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End in Cornwall, spilling up to 117,000 tonnes of crude oil. To put this into perspective, it was 1,231-times more than the amount leaked by a BP North Sea platform last year. 

Back in 1967, the government, under immense pressure, reacted to protect the south coast beaches that so many local communities relied upon for attracting tourists in summer.

Then prime minister and Scilly Isles holidayer Harold Wilson, authorised the deployment RAF bombers to sink the wreckage and released thousands of tonnes of detergent that proved toxic to marine life. The detergent even resulted in killing off the coastal microorganisms which would have broken down the oil.

In total, the oil spill affected hundreds of miles of coastline and killed more than 15,000 seabirds. Tony Soper, who reported on the story for the Western Morning News 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.” 

Some experts see the Torrey Canyon disaster as a key moment in environmental responsibility, which resulted in the creation of the government’s environment department in 1970, 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.”

Fifty years on, the Guernsey quarry, which was used as a natural oil store during the clean-up, is now used as a key place to conduct training exercises for disaster response teams.

And since the establishment of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, other environmental groups have been founded and grown to attracted millions of members. While the way that authorities react to spills, and the shipping industry’s modern failsafe measures can also be traced to the Torrey Canyon.

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.

Government and industry responses to oil spills are much better today, partly as a result of Torrey Canyon. Oil spill contingency plans, something that did not exist in 1967, are in place around the coast.