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The iconic Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 - Marking its legacy

posted Mar 6, 2017, 5:40 PM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated Mar 6, 2017, 5:41 PM ]
The iconic Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 - Marking its legacy
Peter G.Wells
International Ocean Institute, Dalhousie University,
 6414 Coburg Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4R2, Canada

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 29 November 2016
Accepted 5 December 2016

March 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the SS Torrey Canyon oil spill and cleanup, off the Cornwall coast in
the English Channel. It was the world's first major supertanker disaster. It was a signature event in the marine
pollution field, especially related to oil spill response and the initiation of scientific studies of monitoring and
researching the fate and effects of oil in the sea. This paper recalls this event, notes our growing understanding
of marine pollution and global efforts for cleaner seas, and encourages further work on both oil and the many
emerging environmental issues affecting the marine environment.
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Next year (March 2017)marks the 50th anniversary of the SS Torrey
Canyon supertanker oil spill and cleanup, off the Cornwall coast in the
English Channel. It was the world's first major supertanker disaster
(Hall, 2007; Barkham, 2010). Itwas a signature event in themarine pollution
field, especially related to oil spill response and scientific studies
ofmonitoring and researching the fate and effects of oil in the sea. Its anniversary
is an opportunity to recall this event, to note our growing understanding
of marine pollution and global efforts for cleaner seas, and
to encourage further work on both oil and themany emerging environmental
issues affecting the sea.
The Torrey Canyon was a very visible and well-documented spill,
given its location and size (119,000 tonnes of Kuwait crude). It killed
N25,000 seabirds and numerous other marine organisms, engaging
public attention for months. The spill coated beaches in southern England
(approx. 200 km of Cornish coast), the Channel Islands, and
northwestern France. It stimulated several UK studies reported upon
soon after the event (Corner et al., 1968; Nelson-Smith, 1968, 1972;
Simpson, 1968; Spooner, 1968, 1969; Southward and Southward,
1978; Zuckerman, 1967), two books (Cowan, 1968; Smith, 1968), and
scientific concern about coastal pollution from oil and many other
toxic chemicals, in numerous countries. At the time, relatively little
was known about the fate and effects of petroleum derived hydrocarbons
in the sea. The event was also followed shortly afterwards in
North America by the barge Florida spill in Buzzards Bay,Massachusetts
(1968), the Santa Barbara oil platform blowout off California (1969),
and the tanker Arrow bunker C spill in Chedabucto Bay, NS, Canada
(1970). All of these events helped initiate several decades of marine
oil spill impact and recovery studies.
The Torrey Canyon spill was burned, bombed, sprayed with
chemicals and physically removed from shorelines. It was the first,
major offshore and shoreline use of chemicals on a large spill. Unfortunately,
theywere first-generation dispersants (solvent-emulsifiers) and
detergents (solvent based cleaning agents, ITOPF, 2014). They proved to
be of limited effectiveness for the job of dispersing the oil at sea and for
cleaning the beaches, and where used on shorelines, they caused considerable
further ecological damage. The spill gave dispersants a bad
name that has lasted for decades.
The spill also occurred at a time when environmentalism was becoming
a prominent force in western society. Rachel Carson's Silent
Spring (Carson, 1962) had just been published to great acclaim. Toxic
waste dumps were prolific in the USA (these eventually led to super
fund site cleanups), there was the wide-scale use of Agent Orange in
Vietnam, and countries were recognizing the implications of the
burgeoning global human population. Public and political concern,
from local to international, was mounting.
It was shortly after the Torrey Canyon spill that the predecessor of the
Marine Pollution Bulletin began, initiated by Dr. Robert (Bob) Clark, University,
Newcastle upon Tyne, England. It was a mimeographed Newsletter
with a limited distribution to aquatic and marine pollution
specialists. Clark then became the first and long standing Editor when
the newsletter transitioned with Pergamon Press to the current journal
in 1970.
The influence in the marine pollution field left by the Torrey Canyon
disaster, and followed by the other accidents (some mentioned above),
has beenmulti-faceted. Over the past 50 years, there has been a huge investment
in oil pollution research, and research on a vast array of other
chemicals and physical threats to the sea. For oil, the result has been
thousands of papers and reports, and several major syntheses, such as
the US National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council reviews
of oil in the sea (NAS, 1975, 1985; NRC, 1989, 2003, 2005). The
Marine Pollution Bulletin xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
E-mail address: Oceans2@ns.sympatico.ca.
MPB-08232; No of Pages 2
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.12.013
0025-326X/© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Marine Pollution Bulletin
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/marpolbul
Please cite this article as: Wells, P.G., The iconic Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 - Marking its legacy, Marine Pollution Bulletin (2016), http://
dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.12.013


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