Council cutbacks in port operations at Sullom Voe are being blamed for eroding standards and making Shetland more vulnerable to an oil tanker disaster.
The man who ran operations when the port was held up to the world as a model of safe operation, Captain George Sutherland, said he believed port safety had been “severely compromised” on Tuesday night when port control at Sella Ness was left unmanned for the first time in 33 years. A lack of Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) staff caused the port to be closed to shipping.
A senior seafarer at the port who expressed his worries to The Shetland Times on Wednesday said the incident exposed the cracks that are appearing in the tried and trusted systems at Sullom Voe due to job cuts and new working systems which have already shaved nearly £1 million off running costs. He said: “We’re getting the ingredients together for a serious accident here. Changes that are being made are increasing the likelihood.”
He voiced concern about the buying-in of VTS operators from the Humber in England who are being trained on four-day “crash courses” so they can fill in during staff shortages at the council’s ports and harbours building at Sella Ness.
The source also said rumours about continuing problems with the two new £7 million tugs are accurate, giving rise to a lack of confidence in the vessels when they are in action at sea.
Meanwhile, Sullom Voe may even be forced to close for periods later this year if council tugmen strike as a result of their union Unite’s decision to ballot for action in protest at proposed job cuts and new shift patterns.
The tugs are the final nut to crack in the long-running Ports for the Future reorganisation under infrastructure executive director Gordon Greenhill with the workforce of 48 set to be cut by 16, who are likely to be volunteers for redundancy. The two sides have failed to reach agreement and the council has entered a 90-day period of formal consultation on its proposals.
The now-infamous incident at Sella Ness on Tuesday night meant that from about 9.30pm to 8am nobody was manning the VTS room after no operator was brought in to cover for the one who phoned in sick.
The operator who had completed her 12-hour shift at 8pm stayed almost a further two hours until the 229-metre tanker Moon Lady was safely berthed by tugs to begin loading crude. Then the port control office was shut down with no contact available via VHF radio for shipping seeking help relating to Sullom Voe or Scalloway harbour and no monitoring of oil shipping around Shetland by the ports’ radar.
Until this year the VTS was manned by Sullom Voe pilots but they have been replaced by five dedicated VTS operators on lower pay. The number of pilots at the port was cut from 10 to six.
Captain Sutherland, who retired in 2003 as director of ports and harbours, was reluctant to get involved in the worsening tensions at his former workplace, saying he would not have welcomed “interventions from yesterday’s men”. But he said he felt compelled to voice his concerns about this week’s incident.
He said he was “extremely disappointed” by the reports he had heard from the media about the loss of VTS while a ship was loading in the port, if they were accurate. “If that is the case then I do believe that the safety management system at Sullom Voe has been severely compromised.”
He said the port published that it provided a formal VTS service and therefore by operating when it was not doing so was “certainly not in keeping with the spirit of the safety management system”.
He saw VTS as the first point of contact in trouble and said its absence “unquestionably” increased the safety risk at the port. “They are the people who are supervising and overseeing all that is going on and would be the first reaction point in the event of any incident.”
He was reluctant to comment further without detailed knowledge of the incident but he said: “I feel very uncomfortable with the fact that there has been a period of port operation when there was no VTS present when it has been a key part, and is a key part of port operation … and is likely to continue into the future.”
The Shetland Times’ source who raised the issue described the lapse as “absolutely scandalous” for a major oil port and claimed it could have led to a deadly delay in reaction time for tugs, a pilot and emergency services had there been a fire or explosion on the oil tanker. He said: “If things go wrong you need somebody instantly on the radio alerting folk.”
He said the lapse in VTS meant the port was relying on Shetland Coastguard to do its job. He said it brought to a head concerns about long-established safe practices being tinkered under Ports for the Future.
“Across the board, morale is at an all-time low,” he said. “Guys are just absolutely sick to the back teeth.”
In another incident in May the shuttle tanker Loch Rannoch was turned away from Sullom Voe and had to do a U-turn to wait outside the harbour limits after a pilot became concerned about safety with too few crewmen on the pilot launch due to a shortage of available staff.
Numbers had been cut by six the previous month and an unpopular new shift system introduced. “Their system crumbled within the first few days,” the source said.
At that time another source said morale was bad and the men had withdrawn their goodwill and would no longer offer to come in on days off. He said: “It’s gone from being one of the best jobs to one of the worst jobs.”
Responding to the storm, the harbourmaster in charge of the port, Captain Roger Moore, rejected the concerns of Captain Sutherland and others, insisting that full and proper safeguards were in place on Tuesday in the event of an emergency.
He said it had been “an unfortunate set of circumstances” with only a couple of hours’ notice that the VTS operator had fallen ill. With a ship already on its way into Sullom Voe the dayshift VTS operator was kept on duty until the berthing was completed rather than turning the tanker away.
“The job of the VTS is to monitor shipping and ensure its safe passage through our waters,” Captain Moore said. “We do ask them to do other things but that is what they are here for. Whilst the ship is alongside the job of the VTS is actually a point of contact; if something goes wrong or they need a query answered.”
With no VTS, a system was set up on Tuesday giving his phone numbers at home and on his mobile as the point of contact along with the numbers for the manned tugs and pilot boats which were “ready to go”.
The coastguard was informed of the non-operation of VTS during the night and a notice was issued to mariners through the normal channels. No other ships were expected at Sullom Voe overnight.
He said the only real difference to normal was that somebody would have picked up a telephone to call him rather than a radio.
“While it is not an ideal situation that we want to see happening we had all the contingencies in place to cover, should anything go wrong. The weather was nice and it wasn’t as if we were expecting huge gales or storms or anything like that.
“In my view we had all our bases covered. Is it the best situation? Probably not but in the circumstances we did the best we could with the resources we had and maintained the safety of the port.”
He said VTS had been lost before due to power cuts, lightning strike and IT problems but admitted it was “potentially the first time because of a person”.
But he did not accept that the lack of a VTS operator increased risk. “All we’ve done for that one night was that those who needed to got my direct number instead of going through the VTS.”
Captain Moore said he had a lot of respect for Captain Sutherland, who ran the port for 16 years from 1987. But he added: “It was good in days when there were hundreds of ships coming in here and the money was flowing in hand-over-fist. The challenge I’m facing is trying to run this port with less money coming in and still maintain the same levels of safety and operational capacity.
“We are not moving any tankers in and out of the port without trained VTS or a qualified person at that desk. And that will never happen.”
He confirmed the use of probably three VTS operators from the Humber as a temporary “stop-gap measure” while local staff are being trained for the permanent jobs. But he dismissed claims that the four-day course was instead of 400 hours training normally required. That, he said, was only for new starters to VTS work and was a generous allocation given when there was plenty time.
He did not accept parallels made about the concerns raised during the recent campaign to save Shetland Coastguard which focused on the risks posed by relying on operators in Aberdeen instead who had no local knowledge. He said the visiting VTS operators only needed to know about the area within Sullom Voe harbour limits, which is on electronic and paper charts in front of them.
Captain Moore has repeatedly assured the public and councillors that the two new tugs Solan and Bonxie, which have been in service about three months are fit for purpose and their teething troubles rectified since arriving from Spain in February.
But there apparently remains a lack of confidence in the new craft due to repeated problems with equipment, including winches, and concerns that the number of technical glitches could lead to one of the tugs suffering a power blackout, possibly at a crucial time in a towing operation with an oil tanker.
The source said the tug problems were “just another ingredient” in the recipe for an accident.
Captain Moore again denied there was any cause for concern, saying the problems had “more or less gone”. He said there were similar complaints about how bad the Tystie and Dunter were when they were new tugs, and the same with the Tirrick and the Shalder.
A decision was due to be made next month about whether to reduce the tanker-manoeuvring requirements from four to three tugs. But Captain Moore said that would not now be discussed in the near future until operations at the port settle down again following the period of upheaval. The delay is not due to the performance of the new tugs, he said.