The SIC is to ramp up pressure on the government over retaining the emergency tug and will seek to enlist the voices of other councils and environmental groups like Kimo to bolster the case for keeping a coastguard tug in northern waters.
Councillors spoke with a unified voice of the utter importance of maintaining an ocean-going tug in the area to help in case of a potentially devastating incident at sea. They have six months in which to convince the government to keep paying for a tug before the stay of execution granted the vessel expires.
This newspaper believes a tug based in the Northern Isles is a vital safety measure and is campaigning for the tug to be saved.
The council resolved on Wednesday to push the government for a long-term solution and heard that in many other countries, maintaining such vessels is a statutory obligation – something that the UK government denies.
At stake is not only the Shetland environment and economy, but an incalculable “loss of value and reputation”.
The council heard that tug cover near Shetland had already been halved when the emergency tug in Stornoway was removed. Now the Orkney-based tug, the only one left in Scotland, has an uncertain future.
Councillor Billy Fox pointed out that it was not only cargoes of crude oil that posed a danger in north of Scotland waters. There were now frequent cargoes of nuclear waste coming from the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear power plant and if any of these sank, the nuclear containers could not long withstand the pressure of deep water.
Mr Fox said: “They are moving a whole raft of different levels of nuclear material. If a container goes down to 200m of water you have only got an hour to get it back up again.”
He said there were concerns about the 28-year-old nuclear cargo ship Oceanic Pintail which was used to ship material from Dournreay to Sellafield. This vessel had been reprieved from a trip to the scrapyard after it had been decided a new, purpose built vessel would cost too much.
Mr Fox said that nuclear waste was in a different league to oil. Referring to the aftermath of the 1993 Braer incident, he said no fortnight of gales would sort the pollution caused by a nuclear accident. It will be there “essentially forever” he said.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said that the point of nuclear safety was “critical”. There were also many tankers, container ships and large cargo ships carrying more bunkers than the 1,100 tonnes spilled by the ESSO Bernicia at Sullom Voe Terminal, a small spill that killed more seabirds than the Braer .
There was also the threat of Russian boats coming from the Baltic and White Sea nowadays which are not registered on the Automatic
Identification System (AIS) and were going by Shetland as it was safer than the busier English Channel.
Shetland is nonetheless right in the middle of a major shipping channel, with more ships than at the time of the Braer – some are in poor condition.
Director of infrastructure services Maggie Sandison said: “The UK government position is that this is not a statutory duty of government, therefore it is not a spending priority despite clear recognition that an ETV [emergency towing vessel] is crucial in reducing the risks… particularly of an oil spill.”
She said that position had been stated twice in a 10th February meeting involving officials and “stakeholders” organised by the MCA.
Quite clearly many other countries fund oil spill response at national level. It would not be unfair if I said the British government is the dirty man of Europe in this case. JONATHAN WILLS
The MCA had shared risk assessments “which demonstrated that removing ETV provision increased risk in all scenarios modelled in most cases this risk rose to unacceptable levels when the ETV was removed.”
The meeting focussed mainly on alternative funding and alternative methods of salvaging such as using harbour tugs or other vessels.
Dr Wills said that whatever the government thought, it had a clear statutory duty to provide protection for the seas and coastline and this is spelled out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other major international treaties.
He asked if anyone in the MCA was aware of what happened in France where providing tugs was regulated as a statutory duty. “Quite clearly many other countries fund oil spill response at national level. It would not be unfair if I said the British government is the dirty man of Europe in this case,” he added.
Councillor Alastair Cooper said that harbour tugs were not the right vessel when towing in high seas. “The towing gear is different from that where you tow a ship in the harbour. It is a very difficult exercise to try and make harbour tugs tow in an ocean going job. It has been proven here in Shetland that it does not work.”
Mrs Sandison agreed that from the feedback at the meeting “it was clear that harbour tugs do not have the capacity to serve as towing tugs.”
In response to a question about the cost of the Braer disaster from councillor Amanda Westlake, Mrs Sandison said the cost of an ETV over the years would be “substantially outweighed” by the clean up costs, which would be “absolutely phenomenal”.
She said that the MCA has the right to re-charge full cost of vessel salvage though “they have not been doing that” and how best to make a full re-charge had been discussed. Salvage law did not apply to a dedicated rescue vessel.
Councillor David Sandison, who is also general manager of Scottish Salmon Producers Association in Shetland, said that the salmon industry could be endangered and had to be looked at in the context of being the number one food export in Scotland and number two in the UK.
Councillor Robert Henderson said that an oil spill would “completely devastate the economy” in the North Isles. With the salmon produced in one month said to be worth £80m, “employment would clear out of the North Isles as quickly as possible”.
Mr Cooper said it was essential to take the issue to the community resilience board and get a response from all partners. “The whole business of risk needs to be escalated to the proper level,” he said.
It was also extremely important to get representatives from Orkney, the Western Isles and Highland councils on board.
Mr Fox said that the case had to be made that ETV provision was a statutory duty and that the economy was not just about oil and gas. He said that the Western Isles had been very concerned for years about the nuclear shipments from Dounreay heading through the Minch.
He added: “I think the arguments for this can be quite easily made and are very, very valid”.