In March, 1967, the giant tanker Torrey Canyon ""impaled herself"" on a reef off the coast of England -- a wreck which resulted in the spilling of 36 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic. Cowan, who covered it for The New York Times, tells the story in terms of the people responsible. Starting with company officials, he goes on to the men who decided the methods of ""bombing"" the tanker, to the divers, the infantry who cleared the coast, and later to the litigants. The disaster cost the tanker's owners a fortune, upset the economics of the British tourist trade, killed thousands of sea birds and fish, but, most important, ""brought home. . . the dimensions of the oil-pollution problem."" For years, only conservationists had been howling about the destruction the wreck of only one tanker could wreak, and the impalement of the Torrey Canyon finally brought about some of the needed reassessments -- for the transportation of off was in some ways unnecessarily hazardous. Cowan was long a financial reporter for the Times, and here he is best on the financial and legal factors of the case. Unfortunately, his treatment of the incident is less fascinating than it might be, but it is a current concern, reliably reported.