BY DENIS CONNOLLY
FOR five decades now, St Brendan the Navigator has stood steadfast at the bottom of Bantry Square, arms outstretched towards Whiddy Island and beyond.
In those 50 years, he has been lashed by storms and sea sprays, scorched by the sun and stood watch over Bantry Bay, observing both happy and sad occasions.
Sometimes, he has even sported the Bantry Blues or the red and white of Cork, as enthusiastic GAA supporters decked him out for Championship matches.
The arrival of Brendan to Bantry coincided with the arrival of the Gulf Oil terminal to Whiddy Island. The statue was a gift to the people of Bantry from Gulf Oil – placed at the lower end of the square with arms facing out to sea, to ‘guide’ the huge supertankers on their passage up the bay to the offloading jetty.
Brendan the Navigator introduced the oil ‘boom’ to Bantry on that May day in 1969, when he was unveiled to the people of Bantry and the terminal was officially opened.
The Whiddy terminal comprised 350 acres of land which had been purchased at a cost of £120,000 – or £342 per acre. There was no harbour authority in Bantry, so this meant Gulf Oil didn’t have to pay any harbour or tonnage duty.
During the 18 months of its construction, the Whiddy project employed 1,000 people and contributed an average £30,000 per week to the Bantry economy. It led to a fall in the unemployment figure in the town, and some locals who had emigrated returned to West Cork to avail of the building work.
On completion, the terminal provided direct employment for around 100 workers, including on the supply tugs.
With no actual revenue from the terminal, the boom to Bantry came directly from the wages of employees. But it wasn’t all good news coming from Whiddy.
During construction, there were a number of fatal accidents and work was held up with many strikes. From 1968-1979 – just over 10 years – there were 33 oil spills recorded at Bantry Bay.
On October 21st 1974, over 650,000 gallons of oil was pumped into the bay after a 16-inch valve was left open for 30 minutes on the tanker Universe Leader.
The oil polluted over 30km of coastline. In these areas, the vegetation and the lichen were seriously damaged.
On January 10th 1975, two months after the Universe Leader incident, a tugboat collided with the 210,000-tonne Afran Zodiac while the tanker was being prepared for sea.
One of the side plates was fractured, releasing 115,230 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil into the bay.
Minister for Transport Peter Barry flew over the bay and immediately announced his intention to set up a harbour authority for Bantry. It came into effect in October 1976. Although the government had established the harbour authority, it was soon revealed that it had no power to enforce safety regulation in the area.
The necessary legislation was never fully put in place by the government, despite having been passed by the Dáil.
Gulf Oil had been allowed to continue to use the bay essentially for free, and it had done so with the blessing of successive Irish governments who had used the parliamentary authority of the Dáil as cover.
But it was on the morning of January 8th 1979 that the terminal suffered its greatest disaster – when the oil tanker Betelgeuse caught fire and exploded, with the loss of 49 lives.
The salvage operation was delayed due to the toxic fumes which surrounded the wreckage. Over 1 million gallons of oil was subsequently released into the bay. Following the Betelgeuse disaster, Gulf Oil ceased operations at Bantry and the terminal was handed over to the State.
Chevron Oil Company acquired the terminal and the old jetty was replaced with a single point mooring buoy – well out from the tank farm – for loading and offloading the terminal. Chevron finally sold the terminal to Conoco Philips who operated it for a number of years also.
Today, the terminal is again under new ownership, by Zenith Energy Management, who control and operate it with a good safety record, as tankers continue to come and go to Bantry Bay and it employs up to 50 staff at peak.
As the terminal marks its 50th anniversary this week, we can take stock and reflect on the oil terminal with a chequered history, which was the site of the country’s worst maritime disaster.
But there is no doubting that it also played a vital role in rejuvenating the economy of Bantry in its early days.