The Shetland Times is launching a campaign urging the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to retain emergency tug cover, following renewed and widespread fears the potentially life-saving service could be lost in less than two months through Westminster cuts.
A petition is being gathered by this newspaper, as the end of the contract for the Orkney-based Herakles draws ever nearer.
Concern over tug provision has been building up for some time. You can sign the petition online or fill in the coupon printed in today’s paper.
A stakeholders’ meeting called by the MCA, and attended by its chief executive Sir Alan Massey, was held in Edinburgh on Wednesday. It is feared the one remaining tug serving the north and west of Scotland may be lost once its contract comes to an end on 31st March.
Widespread calls are being made for the existing provision to be retained, at least until the government has a full understanding of peoples’ views.
Chairman of the community safety and resilience board, Alastair Cooper, said he was very concerned, not least because the oil industry operated in a “hostile environment”.
“My concern is the MCA believe there are sufficient anchor-handling tugs floating around in our area that would be able to handle whatever emergency came along.
“But the reality is, in the current climate, the anchor-handling tugs are all tied up either in Norway or in Aberdeen. They are 12-18 hours away. There’s not much to pick up in 12-18 hours.”
He said that was a “dangerous situation” for the isles to find themselves in.
“If we don’t have [tug cover] then come 1st April I am concerned about exploration in the Atlantic frontier and all the dangers that that will bring.”
He said waters were “potentially” more crowded and dangerous than they were at the time of the Braer, the tanker which ran aground off Garths Ness in January 1993, causing a massive environmental disaster.
“As we move through the Atlantic frontier and move to the West of Shetland you’re going to have more intense activity.
“When you multiply the amount of voyages in the area, you multiply the risk factor.”
“It would be foolhardy and reckless to remove the ETV provision at this time
The SIC’s deputy leader, Billy Fox, is the council’s representative on the international local government environmental group KIMO.
“Lord Donaldson’s inquiry following the Braer oil spill recommended that the UK government should set up a system to ensure tugs with adequate salvage capacity are available at key points around UK shores.
“Furthermore, he recommended that where adequate capacity cannot be provided in any other way, the UK government should arrange for the funding of the difference between what is needed and what the private sector can provide.
“Our coastline is now far busier and the seas around Shetland are more congested, and our weather can be extreme, particularly to the west of the islands. I do not understand what has changed from the review of ETV provision published in 2000, which stated ETV cover in the existing geographical locations should be provided on a year-round basis.
“The deployment of ETV coverage in the existing four geographical locations has been fully endorsed and should be maintained.
“It would be foolhardy and reckless to remove the ETV provision at this time – especially when the MCA proposal is that commercial tugs will fill the gap when we know that the downturn in oil and gas exploration has seen these vessels tied up in harbour. Even if they are engaged in operations at sea they will be less well equipped to respond and less able to respond quickly than the dedicated ETV.
“It is totally unacceptable that the UK government has removed the budget for the ETV contract from the end of March without any consideration about how protection to Shetland’s environment will actually be delivered in case of a marine emergency.”
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael was one of those attending this week’s meeting. He described the MCA’s thinking on tug cover as “incoherent and incomplete”.
“It’s pretty clear that although they [the MCA] are now seven weeks from the end of the contract, they know they need to do something, but they have no idea what.
“The priority, at the moment for me, is to get the government, the department for transport, to say that they will not drop the protection on 1st April.”
As part of the Westminster government’s spending review in November last year, ministers concluded funding for an emergency tug was not a spending priority. Speaking this week, Mr Carmichael highlighted a risk assessment which showed the government had put “the cart before the horse”, by assessing the risk after the decision was made to remove funding.
“They are assessing risk after the decision has been made to remove the budget. In these circumstances it is difficult to see this exercise as a meaningful or good faith exercise.
“They’ve got a risk assessment which shows that some protection is needed. They can’t tell us what. Until they can tell us what, they should roll over the contract for a month, or three months, or six months – in the same way that they did last time.”
He said the risk assessment failed to “cover the bases” that Lord Donaldson recommended. He added it also looked at issues that had never been a problem and ignored issues which had proved difficult.
“The risk assessment looks at the risk of collision. We’ve never had ships grounding as a result of collision – it’s always been as a result of engine failure, or going onto rocks.”
Concern over tug provision is nothing new – but it is something of particular relevance to the isles.
Introduced in light of the Lord Donaldson report into the Braer, tug provision initially saw vessels guarding waters around the UK.
But that came under threat when the previous coalition government decided not to renew the contract for the tugs as it sought £32.5 million-worth of savings.
After pressure was brought to bear the Herakles was given a reprieve to provide, albeit reduced, cover. The vessel is based at Orkney. It is that reprieve which ends next month.
“It was apparent five years ago that the MCA did not see the value in the emergency towing vessel and it was equally clear from today’s session that this has not changed,” Mr Carmichael added.
This newspaper sought an interview with Sir Alan, but was told he was unavailable.
However, an MCA statement read: “[This week’s] meeting marks another step in the ongoing effort to engage with stakeholders and other interested parties regarding the Emergency Tow Vessel (ETV).
“We will be reviewing the representations made in this meeting and continue to engage with the relevant stakeholders, including the Scottish government, before any decision is reached.”
Holyrood representatives will, of course, take a keen interest in the future of tug provision.
Isles MSP, Tavish Scott, said: “A salvage tug based in the Northern Isles is a crucial part of Shetland’s marine emergency services. The Braer oil tanker disaster led to the seminal Donaldson Report into marine safety.
“The recommendation that a salvage tug needs to cover the northern and western waters of the UK is as relevant today as it was following the Braer. So the Shetland campaign to keep the tug is right and I fully support that.”
Local SNP candidate Danus Skene remains in hospital following an operation, although he is said to be making progress. His election agent, Robbie McGregor, highlighted the need to protect the seafood industry, worth £300 million to the economy, from the risk of pollution.
“What has changed in the current situation to render doubt about the continuation of this contract? The cost of the tug is not great compared with the cost of tankers going aground and any resultant oil spillage. The Shetland seafood industry is worth £300 million to the economy. It would be reasonable to ask what has changed to remove the need for the tug? Salmon and mussel farms cannot move out of the way if there is an oil spillage. There is also the reputational damage that a spillage would cause to both the fishing and eventually the tourist industry in Shetland.
“We demand that the UK government and the MCA retain the tug facility particularly to protect environment around Shetland and the interests of maritime safety. We will be asking the SNP members in the House of Commons to support us in this matter.”
Scottish Labour candidate, Robina Barton insisted: “This thing is a major factor in people’s lives in Shetland and Orkney, and I think it’s important that we have proper cover.”
She highlighted figures which showed Shetland ahead of the rest of the UK when it came to providing volunteer funding for the RNLI.
“Per head of population in England they get 10 pence. Per head of population they get 30 pence, and per head of population in Shetland they get £2.30.
“I think it’s pretty striking, and it shows how important people think sea rescue and emergency provision is in this part of the world. I think it’s important that something happens.”