Our Toxic Oceans
Marine Pollution caused by Oil Spills, Radioactive Waste and Plastic Litter
And the very deep did rot;
Not far from my childhood home in the village of Mousehole (West Cornwall) you will find the Bird Hospital and Sanctuary founded in 1928 by the sisters Dorothy and Phyllis Yglesisas. Long before marine pollution was researched by scientists the sisters embarked on a mission to rescue and heal wild birds; and what better place for a bird hospital than a site overlooking the beautiful Mount’s Bay! On a cloudless day blue waves glitter and herring gulls circle fishing boats, but this view misleads. For decades governments and companies discharged, sluiced, spilled and dumped vast amounts of pollutants into the oceans, both accidentally and intentionally. The well being of marine species and their habitats was rarely considered. There were profits to be made from oil, nuclear power and plastics. Today gulls are as likely to be choking on plastic lighters and bottle tops as circling fishing skiffs. The Yglesias sisters would be horrified.
On the 18th March 1967, 39 years after Dorothy and Phyllis opened their bird hospital, the Torrey Canyon collided with a treacherous rock off Land’s End. It was the era of cheap oil and the enlarged tanker had been transporting a cargo of 25–36 million gallons of ‘crude brent oil’ from Kuwait to Milford Haven. After it hit Pollard’s rock thousands of tons of oil spilled into the sea. Attempts by the Royal Air Force to disperse the oil by bombing it with jet fuel and napalm worsened the pollution. By Easter that year the six mile oil slick had polluted many popular beaches and harmed thousands of marine creatures and plants. Grey Hall writes:
‘While short-term damage to beaches and larger wildlife was devastating, the longer-term effect on smaller sea organisms was even greater. The clinging crude destroyed colonies of fucus (a kind of brown seaweed) and barnacles for up to 15 years.’
The Torrey Canyon disaster was a warning few heeded, despite changes to shipping laws. In 1978 the Amoco Cadiz ran aground and spilled an estimated 69 million gallons of oil into the English Channel. In 1979 two oil tankers, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain, collided off the coast of Tobago. Many tons of oil poured into the Caribbean sea. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez collided with a reef in Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound, home to seals, otters, bald eagles, clams and mussels. The spill of almost 11 million gallons, while far less than other ocean oil spills, caused immense damage to the marine ecosytem.
Shipping accidents and collisions were not the only cause of ocean oil spills. Fires and explosions on offshore oil rigs have been disastrous. In 1988 a gas leak on the huge Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea exploded killing 167 workers. According to Greenpeace ‘too little was done’ to deal with the 5 tons of toxic chemicals that were released. Accidents also occurred on other North Sea platforms such as the Gannet Platform and Elgin Platform. Maya McNicoll writes:
What I do remember is the night of the Piper Alpha disaster that killed one hundred and sixty seven men, and I do remember the Gannet Platform spewing crude into the North Sea and I do remember the Elgin Platform’s poisonous gas cloud that spread across the sea as far as four miles creating a no-go area
32 years after the Alpha Piper disaster in 2010 the Deep Water Horizon disaster killed 11 workers. It was one of the most serious oil spills in US history. Millions of barrels of oil (42 US gallons = 1 barrel) spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Numerous other marine spills have been caused by military conflicts such as the attacks on the Nowruz oil field by Iraqi forces in 1983, and, more recently, the attack on the Front Altair in the Gulf of Oman in 2019. During the Gulf war in 1991 millions of barrels of oil poured into the Persian Gulf harming birds, corals, turtles and dolphins after Iraqi forces set light to hundreds of oil wells.
During the cold war era until 1993 both capitalist and communist states dumped radioactive waste in the oceans. Most of it came from nuclear power plants, research facilities, the military, hospitals and nuclear powered vessels such as submarines and icebreakers. Reactors, liquid waste and fuel containing plutonium, uranium and caesium were dumped at sites in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans. According to data collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 1946 and 1993 Great Britain ocean dumped almost as much nuclear waste (35,088 TBq) as the USSR (39,243 TBq). Between 1948 and 1982 78% of nuclear waste dumped in the North Atlantic was produced by Great Britain. Meanwhile, in the 1950s and 60s the Soviet Union used the chilly waters off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya to dump submarine reactors and other waste. Susanne Kopte wrote:
“during the period of 1965 to 1988 the Northern Fleet had dumped four reactor compartments with eight reactors (three containing damaged fuel) in the Abrosimov Gulf in 20 to 40 meters of water.”
The ocean dumping of nuclear waste did not end in 1993 after the era of the cold war. When a tsunami wave hit Somalia in 2004 containers of ‘illegally dumped’ waste were broken open and the contents scattered along the coast. After villagers became ill with cancers, mouth ulcers and bleeding the UNDP investigated and concluded the ‘dumping of harmful toxic waste is rampant in the sea, on the shores, and in the hinterland.’ An Italian investigation found: ‘around 35 million tonnes of waste had been exported to Somalia for only $6.6 billion.’ European companies had been dumping toxic nuclear waste in the area for year, because it was cheap.
Accidents at nuclear power plants have also caused radioactive materials to enter the oceans. It is well known the accident prone Sellafield plant on the north east coast of England severely polluted the Irish sea with toxic waste pouring from its outflow pipes. When a tsunami flooded the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 radioactive chemicals were released into the air and contaminated water had to be released into the north Pacific. Earthquakes causing ocean floor disturbances are common in the Pacific yet governments have ignored the risks and dangers. For 30 years between 1966 and 1996 France carried out nuclear explosions on the remote Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in the south Pacific, home to delicate corals, rare albatrosses and turtles.
On 25 July 1979 the underwater testing of a nuclear device ‘that got stuck’ caused a large chunk of the rim of the Moruroa atoll to break off. The result was a massive landslide and a tidal wave. This catastrophe did not prevent France from carrying out underground nuclear explosions for another 17 years. Campaigners are now concerned the radioactive waste left behind in cavities and buried in 27 pits will further contaminate the marine ecosystem in the event of an earthquake or tsunami. Kay Weir writes:
France continued nuclear testing underground at Moruroa and neighbouring Fangataufa Atoll, with 137 deep underground tests, and 10 underground “safety trials.” An earthquake could release radioactive materials into the ocean. The consequences for people, birds, fish and turtles could be horrific
Plastic litter began to pollute the oceans long before the 1960s. It has polluted the surface of oceans and accumulated in sediments on ocean floors. In a review of the literature Peter. G. Ryan notes marine turtles were observed ingesting plastic bags as early as the 1950s. A year before the Torrey Canyon disaster in 1966 researchers found plastic objects inside 75 Albatross chicks in Hawaii. In 1974 fishing gear and twine were found inside the intestines of a manatee. Not only did seabirds and marine mammals ingest plastic litter they were strangled and entangled by it. In 1947 a seal was spotted entangled in netting. By the 1960s entanglement was threatening the survival of seals. It was many years before these early findings were taken seriously by governments.
About 80% of ocean litter is plastic’; it is toxic waste dumped by oil tankers, cruisers, military vessels, fishing vessels, industries, the tourist trade, fast food outlets, oil rigs, and households. In a 60 year time series study, for the period 1957 to 2016, researchers show there was a ‘significant increase in plastics in the open ocean in the 1990s’. Plastic Entanglements, recorded by the Continuous Plankton Recorder, were concentrated along busy shipping routes and involved macroplastics. These are visible plastic objects; for example, fishing nets, rope and packing twine. Macroplastics can erode and break down and become micro particles called microplastics which are defined as less than 5mm in size. As they do toxic chemicals called POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) leak into the ocean. These are absorbed by species such as lugworms and plankton, and eventually they become concentrated in larger marine species such as the fish large mammals consume.
Many thousands of plastic products contain a group of toxic chemicals called PFAS. Toys, food packaging, curtains, dental floss and micro beads in wash gels are a few. These objects drift into the ocean from land fill waste sites and sewer outlets. Last year scientists revealed PFAS were found in polar bears and ringed seals in East Greenland. Polar bears guzzle seals, seals gobble fish, krill and shrimps. Shrimps consume single cell microscopic organisms. The food chain of the marine ecosystem is thoroughly polluted.
The growth of public concern about the damage caused by marine litter pollution is slower than glacial. In the summer at a popular beach near my home visitors leave behind tons of plastic waste. It includes the packaging of instant disposable barbecues, sandwich wrappers, flip flops, six pack holders, wipes, disposable gloves, sunscreen bottles, even Ethernet cables. Seabirds attracted by scraps left by beach users often become entangled by the plastic waste, some of which melts on the hot ash of abandoned barbecues. The gulls’ feathers burn, their feet sizzle…
The pollution of the oceans during the 53 years since the Torrey Canyon disaster has caused huge destruction. Many human lives have been lost, and we shall never know the full extent of the vandalism done to marine species and their habitats. So it is time to revive the spirit of the Yglesias sisters; the belief that wild birds and other creatures are intrinsic, not extraneous, that we should defend their well being and protect their habitats. This means we have to clean up the marine environment and to insist governments, companies, defence forces and citizens stop polluting it. And finally, we must think long and hard about our own waste disposal practices as consumers.