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Legacy that won't wash off

The Sea Empress oil spill has added some important reasons for studying the affected coastline, says Alf Alderson

About 800 years ago the Welsh traveller and historian Geraldus Cambrensis described the village of Manorbier on the Pembrokeshire coast as "the most delectable spot in Wales". Until early last year some would have argued that his description remained valid. But in February 1996 the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground only a few miles up the coast and its noxious cargo was washed ashore.

Fifteen months after the third largest oil spill in UK waters, Manorbier and most of the rest of the South Pembrokeshire coastline that was affected seems, on the surface, to have made a remarkable recovery. Indeed, the clean-up was so successful that a recent BBC2 Horizon programme described the event as "the perfect oil spill".

Before the spill, schools would have visited the area, attracted by its 35 sites of special scientific interest as well as by its excellent facilities for field and nature studies. (The Field Studies Council has been undertaking research in the area for 50 years.) The island of Skomer, for instance, is a bird sanctuary, managed by the Dyfed Wildlife Trust. It is home to a wide range of sea birds, including the world's largest population of Manx Shearwaters, as well as a multitude of puffins, gulls, razorbills and fulmars.

Since the oil spill, however, the reasons for study have changed: what are the environmental repercussions of a man-made disaster, and how can they be incorporated into environmental education?

Although the coast now looks much as it did before the spill, there have been immediate long-term effects. There has been, for example, a marked increase in the amount of green algae on rocky shores, because the limpets which fed off the algae were wiped out by the spill.

Charles Mathieson, recreation management officer at the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, believes the coastline is now an ideal field study site for schools and colleges, as students are able to see first-hand the impact of an environmental catastrophe. The national park is compiling a resources leaflet for lower-secondary pupils for this reason.

Dale Fort Field Centre has become particularly involved in the educational aspect of the spill and has produced a resource pack for teachers and students, available on paper or disc.

Schools carrying out site surveys in the area find it virtually impossible to ignore the effects of the spill, economically and environmentally. The Countryside Council for Wales has set up a working party, co-ordinated by the Environmental Education Council for Wales, to look at ways of providing educational material targeted at various key stage levels.

Guto Owen, director of the Environmental Education Council for Wales (EECW), says "Many schools are still using the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster as a source of information on the effects of oil pollution. We will produce materials that relate to something with which they can identify far more readily, which happened on their doorstep."

The EECW is aiming to act as a clearing house for information on some of the extensive academic and scientific research that has already been undertaken on areas such as wildlife, marine ecology and tourism.

"Pembrokeshire is a classic case study of the perceived battle between economics and the environment," he says. "There is obviously a need to present this in a more digestible form for schools."

But what will you find if you visit Pembrokeshire's shores this summer? The weather undoubtedly affected the clean-up. When the spill occurred, the area's beaches were at their lowest sand levels; winter storms had washed much of the sand away. This meant oil that washed up on the beaches and wasn't removed was later covered over as the beaches filled with sand during the calmer spring and summer, a process known as "cut" (winter) and "fill" (summer).

For this reason, many beaches last summer appeared cleaner than they were. All looked fine on the surface, but a few feet down it was still possible to find crude oil. With the autumn and winter storms of 199697, sand was again re-moved, exposing the oil, which was released into the sea, bringing more pollution problems. Oil also continues to come ashore from the seabed and from further down the coast.

The Sea Empress Environmental Evaluation Committee continues to monitor the effects of the spill and co-ordinate research on it. Beaches throughout the area are monitored by "hit squads", which in April this year were still reporting sporadic oil contamination. Clearly, much work remains to be done.

Nevertheless, much of the Pembrokeshire coastline looks almost the same as it did before the Sea Empress accident - give or take a few thousand limpets. In the long term no one is really sure what the effects of the spill will be. But for students wishing to study environmental change and pollution in action, Pembrokeshire could well be up on the list of top field study sites for years to come.

Countryside Council for Wales 01248 370444

* Dale Fort Field Centre 01646 636205

* Dyfed Wildlife Trust 01437 765462

* Environmental Education Council for Wales 01222 395559

* Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority 01437 764636

Facts about the oil spill

* The Sea Empress released 72,000 tonnes of light crude oil and 360 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the sea from February 15 to 21 1996, after running aground off Milford Haven and while at the jetty after being refloated.

* More than 6,900 birds of 28 species were recovered - heavily oiled - dead or alive; up to 90 per cent of the limpet population was killed in heavily affected areas; ferwer than 20 out of a population of 150 rare cushion starfish survived in West Angle Bay.

* The affected area included 35 sites of special scientific interest, a national park, one of only three marine nature reserves in the UK, and two possible European special areas of conservation. As well as polluting 200km of coastline, the spill affected the region's important fishing and tourism industries .

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