Environmental body Kimo has added its support to a fast-growing campaign against the UK government’s “crazy” decision to end the provision of emergency tugs in Shetland and Orkney waters.
Describing the move as “short-sighted in the extreme”, KIMO said the government’s projected £32 million savings over four and a half years would be a drop in the ocean should there be a major accident within that time.
It said the government’s assertion that there is sufficient capacity in the private sector to cope is “completely contrary to the experience of the Braer oil spill” and would leave the Northern Isles and Western Isles “particularly vulnerable” should an accident happen.
The importance of the emergency tug support was highlighted on Friday – just two days after the government’s spending review was announced – when the Stornoway-based Anglian Prince assisted in pulling the £1.2 billion nuclear submarine HMS Astute off the Skye shingle banks it had grounded on.
John Mouat of the Kimo secretariat said: “This crazy decision must be reversed and we will be demanding a meeting with the minister to put our views across. We understand that financially times are tough; however, cutting these tugs leaves coastal communities at risk of huge costs in the case of a serious accident, which could far outstrip the cost of the rescue tug service.”
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who is a whip in the coalition government, has vowed to lobby for a reversal of the decision, while Shetland MSP Tavish Scott is writing to the UK shipping minister Mike Penning demanding that the tug coverage be maintained.
Local councillors are widely expected to add their weight to the campaign when they meet to discuss an emergency report from harbour master Roger Moore in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday.
Capt Moore’s report stresses the importance of coastal waters around Shetland to its economy, with fishing and aquaculture generating more than £200 million a year and the oil and gas industries, along with tourism, providing a further £76 million.
It notes that the Fair Isle Channel is the main northern route around the UK and many large oil, chemical and gas tankers, bulk carriers, cruise ships, container ships and general cargo ships use the route.
Capt Moore says the fleet of four tugs at Sullom Voe’s harbour are only suited to providing “first aid” to a large ship in trouble while waiting for a more powerful tug to arrive.
His report states: “The removal of the ETV [emergency tow vessel] from Shetland waters will much reduce the capacity to successfully salve a vessel in poor weather and will be largely reliant on the hope that a suitable sea-going tug is in the area.”
Quoting UK energy minister Chris Huhne’s remark that “there is every reason to increase our vigilance” in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, Capt Moore notes that exploration and development of oil and gas to the west and north of Shetland will increase “the likelihood of an incident”.
His report refers to a cost-benefit analysis of stationing a tug around Fair Isle, carried out by the MCA back in 2000, which showed a combined benefit in terms of safety, preventing pollution and receipts of nearly £15 million over a 10-year period.
The tugs were provided after a lengthy local campaign on the back of Lord Donaldson’s review of shipping safety in the aftermath of the Braer oil tanker running aground at Garths Ness, Quendale with 85,000 tonnes of crude oil on board.
Mr Scott said earlier this week that the Shetland community was “united again in this battle to keep the tug”, just as it had been in the 1990s during attempts to get a tug stationed here.
He noted the “severe economic damage” caused to Shetland, particularly its seafood industry, adding: “Had the tanker been carrying heavier oil, and had the weather not been so extreme, the impact would have been much worse and the cost to Shetland would have been far higher.”