Emergency exercises are needed to help prevent tankers which drop anchor near the shoreline from drifting onto rocks and potentially spilling thousands of tonnes of oil.
Councillor Rick Nickerson says too many questions hang over how the huge vessels, sometimes half-laden with oil, can cope if one of them should drag its anchor.
He urged members of the SIC harbour board to consider joining up with the council’s emergency planning service to carry out “desk-top” exercises to test what might happen if ships drift when dropping anchor at sea.
Any exercise that is run should be operated in conjunction with all emergency services and other groups such as the Lerwick Port Authority.
Despite a 10-mile avoidance area established in the wake of the Braer disaster, tankers weighing 5,000 tonnes and more can enter Lerwick and Sullom Voe harbour areas, with precautionary areas now established in the approaches to the ports.
Shuttle tankers operating on the Foinhaven and Schiehallion fields regularly use the area near Gulberwick and Quarff as a safe anchorage.
Normally the tankers are in ballast before moving on to load cargo from the Foinhaven FPSO – the floating production, storage and off take unit.
However, the tankers are occasionally half-laden with oil, as they await the chance to collect a second batch of oil. Although they notify the coastguard on their arrival and departure, they can anchor just half a mile from land.
Regular crew changes while the tankers are anchored can have economic benefits to Lerwick Port Authority and the wider area, with crewmen coming ashore to buy goods and services in Lerwick.
Mr Nickerson questioned whether the potential risk to the environment with tankers coming so close to shore was worth the benefits afforded the island economy.
“The emergency planning service should hold an exercise around the scenario in which one of these tankers gets into trouble,” he said.
“The main issue for me is, is the Shetland community enduring a disproportionate risk to the benefits of a few thousand pounds for crew changes the Lerwick Port Authority might gain?
“This is no reflection on the LPA seeking business, but we have a world famous nature reserve at Noss which is not that far away.
“Why don’t those ships go into the harbour, pay harbour dues in a safe environment, or come to Sullom Voe even?”
Mr Nickerson said lessons needed to be learned from past incidents involving the klondykers in the early 1990s, although he admitted present-day tankers were “in a different league” from the dilapidated Russian vessels that used to come into shore.
Despite his concerns, modern day tankers are considered pretty safe. Engines and thrusters are linked to navigational aids, which add extra security when the vessel finds itself in adverse weather.
When a tanker does drop anchor it drops only one, leaving another spare which can be deployed if required.
Mr Nickerson admitted modern advances in technology mean today’s tankers are safe, but said that was no reason to avoid carrying out tests.
In particular, tanker engines are meant to be ready to go within five minutes of start up. When south-easterly gales are forecast the vessels often heave anchor and sail 20 miles off Shetland.
Mr Nickerson said it would be a worthwhile test to check all tankers could be on their way within the five-minute timescale.
Emergency exercises involving tankers are carried out, but a full assessment of a scenario involving a tanker dropping anchor has never been investigated.
Mr Nickerson said such a test might offer “reassurance” to those concerned by the sight of the gigantic vessels so close to shore.
“The council and the port authority will have existing emergency plans in place and there is a national contingency plan as outlined in the report,” he said.
“But I think the reassurance I would like to see is at least if an exercise was held then at least that might flag up issues we have not thought about, or might provide reassurance that the practice is sustainable.
“It might be okay in a ballast situation but many of these ships are half laden.”
Mr Nickerson’s comments were backed by head of ports and harbours Captain Roger Moore, who said the proposal would complement the wide range of exercises currently carried out to help maintain marine safety.
However, he added the council’s emergency planning department would have to weigh the proposal against other commitments it already has.
“Between ourselves and Lerwick [Port Authority] we have a robust anti-pollution plan for emergencies, but there is always a benefit in testing other scenarios,” Capt Moore said.
“The question now will be whether emergency planning can fit it into schedule. We have got to get all the people involved to attend.
“There are other emergencies that Shetland might need to consider as well. The recent one was the Swine Flu epidemic.”
Mr Nickerson moved the matter be deferred to the next full council meeting on 16th September to enable a wider number of council members to discuss it. He was seconded by Scalloway member Iris Hawkins.