Torrey Canyon

Starting Date 
Saturday, March 18, 1967
supertanker run aground
off western coast of Cornwall, England
Estimated Spillage 
857,600–872,300 barrels (35.7–38.6 million gallons)

The Torrey Canyon, a BP chartered 300-meter-long supertanker, ran aground onto Pollard's Rock (in a well-known set of reefs), near Lands End and the Isles of Scilly (an archipelago off the western coast of Cornwall, England), which is a tourist and fishing area. The wreck was attributed to Master's negligence due to taking a short cut and leaving the ship's cook on watch. An eight-mile slick formed by nightfall and reached over 20 miles long the following day. Over the course of several days, all of the ship's crude oil cargo seeped into the Atlantic Ocean. Cornwall beaches were despoiled, and an oil slick crossed the Channel as winds carried it towards France.

Clean-up Efforts 
  • Ten thousand (10,000) tons of dispersants (euphemistically called detergents; primarily BP1002) were applied by 42 vessels to floating oil and oil on beaches (which was plowed in, in some areas) as well as dropped from cliffs into inaccessible coves and poured from helicopters.
  • To sink the ship and burn off the slick, bombs (42 at 1,000 pounds each; 25% missed the stationary target) were used, and then aviation fuel and napalm when the bombs failed to ignite the oil.
  • Foam booms were unsuccessfully used to contain the oil, due to high seas.
  • Manual removal, including straw and gorse to soak up oil on beaches.
  • Three thousand (3,000) tons of chalk containing stearic acid were applied by the French and is believed to have resulted in the sinking and dispersion of the oil due to the chalk’s oleophilic properties (oil affinity).
  • Some of the oil (3,000 tons) was pumped into sewage tankers and dumped into a quarry, after a thick slick hit the Guernsey coastline.
  • It contaminated coastlines of England and France, with 200 miles of the coast of West Cornwall and 100 miles on the southern tip of Cornwall affected.
  • When the tanker broke up, a slick formed and drifted south and remained at sea for two months.
  • "Approximately half of the cargo did not reach the shore because it weathered, evaporated, or was dispersed by natural mechanisms.  For several months following the dispersant application, many shorelines were recoated with oil-dispersant mixtures." (NOAA Incident Report)
  • The incident killed an estimated 25,000 birds (the spill coincided with their northerly migration).
  • The incident killed seals and other marine life, including limpets (snails) on the intertidal rocks.
  • The quarried oil in Guernsey remains there today, appearing as a solid surface on which birds land, become entrapped, and die. When oil is removed from the quarry or water levels and pressure changes, the oil refreshes from the sediment below, which was earlier contaminated by the quarry’s use as a German armaments dump during World War II and, therefore, cannot be dug out.
  • Green weeds grew rampantly due to the enhanced nutrients resulting from the use of dispersants.
  • The incident drew attention to the dangers of dispersants.
  • “Early estimates indicated rapid recovery of species along the beach, while long term studies revealed extremely slow recovery.  Wave-beaten rocky areas that received only light oiling took approximately 5-8 years to return to normal while areas receiving heavy and repeated dispersant applications took 9-10 years to recover.  A 1978 study showed that a rare hermit crab species had not re-appeared in the spill area.” (Incident Report, NOAA)
  • The spill prompted creation of international maritime regulations on pollution, most notably:
  • 1969: International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC), which holds liable the owner of the ship from which the polluting oil escaped or was discharged.
  • 1978: International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which imposes regulations intended to prevent and minimize pollution—accidental and from routine operations—from ships.