The government believes the waters around Shetland and Orkney can be served by the Sullom Voe harbour tugs or offshore support vessels instead of the coastguard emergency towing vessels (ETVs) that will be taken out of service at the end of this month.
Even though the new Sullom tugs Solan and Bonxie are still operating under strict limitations while teething troubles are resolved and their crews voted this week to take industrial action, ministers are clinging to the belief that it no longer needs to provide protection for shipping in the area.
The government’s position emerged in response to criticism from MPs on the transport select committee today, who re-iterated their view, made in an earlier report on the coastguard closures, that the proposal was “unviable and potentially reckless”.
This afternoon Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness said the government had completely missed the point about the emergency tugs.
“This is clearly a non-starter,” said Mr Cluness. “The government seems to be missing the point that our tugs are not ocean going vessels. Although there’s no question that our tugs would help a vessel in distress, the fundamental issue here is that they are not equipped to cope with the range of shipping that we have passing through Shetland’s waters. It is essential that we have a ship of the size and capability of the Anglian Sovereign available if we are to save the islands from another Braer disaster.”
The government is under pressure from local authorities and from within, in the form of isles MP and Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael, to extend the contract which will run out on 30th September for six months until a viable solution can be found.
But in its response to the MPs it said: “The government is satisfied that there is sufficient tug capacity to provide an acceptable response to disabled vessels that break down in the vicinity of the Dover Strait and the south-west approaches. The waters off the Shetland and Orkney Islands can be reached within reasonable time by tugs that operate at Sullom Voe or by vessels that service the offshore industry to the west of the Shetland Isles.”
The government does admit that the situation off the Western Isles is different “because no suitable commercial tugs operate in the area” and it may extend the contract for the Hebridean vessel for six weeks if local authorities in the Highlands can come up with a suitable funding plan.
“The government recognises the committee’s concerns, but continues to believe that responsibility for ensuring the operational safety of ships is properly a matter for the commercial shipping industry, working in partnership with the tug and salvage industries.”
By contrast, in their report, the MPs state: “Our evidence strongly suggests that there is no suitable commercial alternative to the emergency towing vessels. A harbour tug has neither the ocean towage capacity nor the bollard pull that an ETV possesses. Unless the government can provide a persuasive case that such capacity exists in appropriate form and at appropriate locations, it should recognise that the solution it has proposed is unviable and potentially reckless.”
They go on: “The government is the guarantor of last resort for the protection of our marine and shoreline environment, and for the lives of those in peril on our seas. That duty, we conclude, would be best discharged by responsibility for the provision of emergency towing vessels resting with the state.
“However, we recognise that there is a strong case for finding other source of income to help cover their costs. We note that the government is brokering discussions with the ETV working group in pursuit of a solution to this problem. But the indications we have received are that these discussions may take some time. It would be unacceptable for the UK shoreline to lie unprotected if no agreement has been reached by 30th September.
“In such a scenario, the government should make exceptional provision by extending the ETV contract over the winter, giving the ETV working group a further six months in which to resolve the issue.”
The government is already making arrangements for shipping to be alerted to the withdrawal of ETV cover. Coastguard co-ordination centres will be invited to monitor shipping using the automatic identification system and urged to contact ships that have stopped at sea or are behaving erratically.
Coastguards will also be told to monitor tug availability in the UK and “encourage ship masters, owners and their insurers to take early action to summon tug assistance should ships get into difficulty or become disabled vessels”.
Committee chairwoman Louise Ellman said: “I am very disappointed … that the government still intends not to renew the contract for emergency towing vessels. These vessels protect our shores from pollution and we are not convinced that suitable commercial alternatives exist.”
Mr Cluness said: “Any savings that are made out of these proposals would pale into insignificance if an incident was to happen and we couldn’t respond properly. I heard earlier this week that another Braer-type incident could cost the Shetland seafood industry as much as £500 million.
“The UK government needs to realise that we are in a very vulnerable position with all the shipping using the seaways around Shetland. We continue to call on this coalition government to extend the existing contract until a safe alternative can be found – the protection of these islands are its responsibility. Most ministers won’t be aware of the impact a tanker grounding can have, but unfortunately, as Shetlanders, we have firsthand experience.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott said: “This government decision is wrong, dangerous and disgraceful. Shetland had the Braer disaster visited upon the islands in 1993. A major international study was then done. Lord Donaldson’s seminal report recommended ocean going salvage tug cover for the seas around Shetland. Nothing has changed in 20 years that make this need any less.
“I am at a complete loss to understand why this decision has been taken. If the existing contract is so bad, renegotiate it. But do not leave Shetland coastal waters defenceless. That is completely unacceptable and the UK government must immediately change its position.”