20 September 2011

Government Abandons Clean Up and Rescue Services for Oil Tankers and Freight Vessels

Union 'Utterly Appalled' by Marine Pollution and Safety Savings

UK – In 1993 the oil tanker MV Braer grounded of the Shetland coast after fuel contaminated with seawater caused her engines to fail. The ship broke up and released around 87,000 tonnes of oil some of which washed up on the coast. Plans to deal with such incidents were heavily criticised, not least by New Scientist magazine and subsequently the Government introduced four emergency towing vessels (ETV’s) to assist tankers and other freight and passenger ships.

Such fleets are common in the Western world, Spain for example has fourteen and Germany eight, but now Britain has decided to do away with her small fleet from this month, to the extreme consternation of maritime unions and conservationists. The damage inflicted by the wreck of the Braer was minimised by the action of the sea during an extremely stormy period of weather coupled with the particularly light oil which formed her cargo, not typical of North Sea crude, and the unceasing efforts of the local population to aid stricken wildlife.

The maritime union Nautilus says that the UK’s fleet of ETV’s has become a model for other countries and on average they are called out around 180 times a year with the number of recent incidents and near-misses in the Channel alone demonstrating the value of these vessels. The union is also deeply disturbed at the potential loss of the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG), which was launched in 2006 following long-running concerns over the decline in the number of fire brigades capable of delivering emergency support at sea. Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson described the decision, confirmed in today’s House of Commons transport committee report, as shocking, and expressed his fear of losing the MIRG saying:

“We are utterly appalled by the way in which ministers have so casually and recklessly dismissed the evidence and the concerns of the transport committee, seafarers, fire-fighters and independent experts. Nothing has changed since the disasters that resulted in the establishment of the ETV and MIRG services and the government is turning the clock back in a deeply damaging way. Current provisions exist because the market has failed to provide in the past, and the ministers are deluded if they seriously believe it can provide in the future.

“The costs of any future oil spill disaster could far outstrip the entire £80 million the government intends to save through these proposals. Indeed, the *Sea Empress disaster alone cost more than £140 million to clean up and the economic and environmental costs of a similar disaster today could run to £1 billion or more. But it’s not just money we’re talking about: it is the safety of life at sea – passengers and crew – and the wellbeing of the marine environment.

“With ships getting bigger, carrying more passengers or hazardous cargoes, and alongside significantly reduced crewing levels, the support offered by the service remains of critical importance, scrapping MIRG will save the Department for Transport just £340,000 a year – so what price safety at sea?

“Scrapping these vital safety services is like cancelling your home insurance because you haven’t been burgled in the past year and it is essential that we retain the ability to cope with maritime emergencies not if, but when they do occur. These cuts seriously threaten the safety of all those who use the sea, and as an island nation, this could seriously impact on every single one of us.”

* Photo: The Sea Empress foundered whilst attempting to deliver crude oil at Milford Haven in 1996 losing 73,000 tonnes of her cargo and causing a fishing ban off the Pembroke coast, a collapse of holiday traffic and with a total cost estimated of over £120 million.

Source: handy shipping guide. 16 September 2011

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