An accident at sea during the winter is “inevitable” if the government pushes ahead with its decision to withdraw the emergency towing vessels (ETVs) from around the UK shoreline, according to the Shetland Coastguard branch of the PCS union.
Any savings from scrapping the tug contract would then be lost through damage to the environment and clean-up operations, members claimed in a response to government assertions on Friday that the Sullom Voe harbour tugs and oil field vessels would fill the gap left when the Northern Isles ETV is withdrawn at the end of this month. The government was replying to a critical report by MPs on the House of Commons transport select committee which called on ministers to think again.
The PCS said today: “With the more extreme winter weather approaching, if the withdrawal of the ETVs goes ahead as planned at the end of this month we believe a maritime accident, which could otherwise have been prevented by an ETV, is inevitable and that the proposed “savings” will be lost through the damage to our environment and subsequent clean-up.
“As operational Coastguard officers we work with ETVs, shipping and offshore installations every day of the year and with the benefit of this experience we do not believe the proposal to utilise offshore support vessels (AHTS) in lieu of ETVs will succeed; these vessels are either on contract to supply and patrol/protect a rig exclusion zone and cannot be released from that, or they are going to/from or in port where the crew are at rest and the vessel is unable to react in an emergency, unlike an ETV which is at standby 24/7.”
It added: “The dedicated ETVs on standby around the UK are purpose built AHTS vessels able to operate in deep sea and hostile weather conditions, they have a bollard pull (towage rating) of at least 152 tonnes. The tugs that operate at Sullom Voe are harbour tugs, not designed for deep sea/hostile weather operations, and have an bollard pull of 87 tonnes (MV Bonxie).”
The union also attacked the indication from the government that after the ETVs were scrapped coastguards would monitor tug availability and encourage early intervention by owners and insurers if ships get into difficulty.
“This is something we have always done, it is not a new concept. The current list from a broker details the nearest tug, other than the ETV, as being in Aberdeen – a significant distance and time delay from being in Shetland and Orkney waters, where the ETV operates.
“Yet again the government has chosen to completely ignore the professional opinion of serving Coastguards who work with the ETVs and the commercial towage industry on a regular basis. We would therefore question how this decision could be properly informed if they have not consulted those whose job it is to protect our coastline on a day-to-day basis.”