A top council manager is to listen to marine staff at Sella Ness today to hear concerns about the perceived lapse in safety standards for handling oil tankers at Sullom Voe.
Infrastructure executive director Gordon Greenhill, who has been in charge of reshaping port operations, agreed this week to put any required changes back to councillors for approval. He said: “If we’ve got something wrong then I will put my hands up in the air.”
But while pledging to put back some of the savings of around £1 million a year to “beef up” operations, if required, he said there was as yet no “emphatic proof” that his cuts had gone too far.
His offer of possible remedial action got a lukewarm reaction yesterday by one senior member of sea staff who said Mr Greenhill had already been warned all about the dangers during the past two years of negotiations under Ports of the Future. “We’ve already exhausted the route through Greenhill,” he said. “He always hides behind his advisers.”
John Taylor of Unite dismissed the offer as a PR exercise and said the proper forum for relaying concerns was through his union. However Mr Greenhill and his team had “consistently ignored” the union’s views.
The talks follow last week’s revelations of serious concerns among senior sea staff that an oil tanker disaster is becoming more likely due to safety being eroded by cutbacks imposed under the council’s shake-up at Sella Ness.
For the first time in Sullom Voe’s history nobody manned the vessel traffic service at Sella Ness one night last week due to a lack of operators. In the past the job was done by marine pilots but that has been stopped to save money. Stand-in VTS operators from the Humber are being trained up to fill gaps.
Tanker movements at the terminal have also been delayed recently by crew shortages in the pilot boat service following job cuts and the introduction of an unpopular new 12-hour shift system.
Staff concerns and complaints of poor morale were given greater credence last week by the intervention of retired marine operations director at Sella Ness, Captain George Sutherland, who has expressed his anger that safety may be being seriously compromised. He is expected to pursue his concerns with the political leaders of the local authority.
His interest was welcomed by some of the sea staff who used to serve under him. The source who spoke to The Shetland Times yesterday said: “I think it’s an indication of how bad things are that he has broken his silence. He doesn’t do it lightly.”
Meanwhile, ongoing difficulties with the port’s two new £7 million tugs, which management has played down, came to a head on Sunday when the Solan lost one of its two engines while about to go alongside the tanker Penelop to help bring her into Sullom Voe.
The tanker had to be taken back out of port by the three other accompanying tugs while the Solan returned to Sella Ness and her crew swapped tugs, returning with the older tug Shalder. The tanker was delayed in berthing at Jetty 1 but there was little increased danger during the incident which happened in perfect weather with almost no wind.
The problem was later traced to the failure of an electrical component which had stopped or disrupted the engine’s governor, prompting the engine to shut down.
Head of port operations Roger Moore said yesterday the manufacturers felt it was unlikely to happen again but instructions have been issued to the engineers on how to deal with it without having to take the tug out of action.
He said the Solan was now back in operation.
The sea source said: “The staff at Sella Ness are entirely perplexed as to why [the management] refuse to admit there are problems with the new tugs.”
Last week marine sources at Sella Ness revealed there was a lack of confidence in the new vessels, despite assurances given to councillors and the public by Captain Moore that the problems had been rectified. One man voiced fears of a power blackout at a crucial time.
The two new tugs are still only being used for slow-speed operations, like going alongside a tanker, rather than the initial and more hazardous job of going to the stern or bow, which require high-speed approaches at up to 10 knots. An error while going ahead of a tanker could be catastrophic for the tug and her crew. “If you get it wrong the consequences can be rapid and fatal,” said the source.
He said the new tugs were still under “strict limitations” agreed by management, the tugmasters and the harbour pilots due to the continuing problems of not being able to steer straight at speed. It appears that the sign to look out for which will show that the Solan and Bonxie are fully operational is when they head out of the port on their own to fetch in a tanker for the other two tugs to assist with, rather than the other way around as at present.
But the source said: “We’re some way away from that. The tugs are only operational under strict limitations for what they can be used for.”
It is not clear whether Sunday’s fault is similar to problems which plagued the electrics on the Whalsay ferry Linga, which is also a Voith-propelled vessel, causing her to breakdown during Captain Sutherland’s time in charge of the ferries and then more recently to crash into the Laxo terminal. The Linga also had steering problems which took at least five years to sort out.
On Monday, Captain Moore said: “It’s a disappointment when any tug has a failure. It’s unfortunate that it happens to be one of the new tugs but it could just as easily have been any of the other tugs.”
He said the Voith tugs in the fleet were generally reliable but a spare tug was kept in case of breakdown. “It has happened on the Dunter and Tystie in the past. It has happened with other tugs. It is not a regular occurrence but it is something that does happen from time to time, which is why we do have a back-up tug available.”
Both new tugs have proved awkward for their masters to handle. A source said last week: “They’re still not right and I don’t think they ever will be. There’s something that’s inherently not matching between the hull and the propulsion units.”