Torrey Canyon

| Modern * Cornwall |

The Torrey Canyon Oil spill was one of the biggest environmental disasters of Modern British History. Worse still, the real issues only came with the subsequent ‘clean up’ job. In history we love to talk about unintended consequences, and this is one of the best examples out there.


The spill happened off the coast of St Ives in the spring of 1967, just as the tourist season was about the begin. An oil carrier was making its way around the coast when it crashed into the notorious ‘Seven Stones’ reef on the seabed. Hitting the rocks, the ship tour open and spilled out onto the coast.


Immediately, government called on the expert advice of scientists. Unfortunately, the lead expert was an ex-army officer whose experience with oil spills had been to bomb them – yep, you heard that right, aerial bombardment was a typical way of destroying oil – so the the oil on the ship was bombed out of existence.


The government then attempted to deal with the rest of the oil, the big black mass that was quickly heading towards the beach. They used toxic detergents to emulsify and disperse the oil. Applied in some circumstances, this would have been the right choice. But the ocean is a large, self-cleaning being, who would have done the job in the long run if we had just admitted a mistake and let it be.


The issue was that the tourists wouldn’t come to Cornwall’s sandy coasts if they would get oil on their beach towels. Patience wasn’t a virtue that the local economy could stand, the oil had to get cleaned up as quickly as possible. Calling on a community-wide campaign for volunteers, a number of families did well out of the additional paid hours of ‘mopping up’ the spill. Good for some, but it also led to thousands of oiled birds and fishes dying from the toxins. The tourists came, but the wildlife was dying.


A disastrous accident, terrible management, and misplaced priorities, this event had one positive in that it increased the national concern for nature. Images of birds covered in oil, the clear impact on ecosystems, and Cornish wildlife suffering huge losses changed many people into nature-loving citizens and passionate environmental activists.