Pollution disaster fears as rescue tugs are ditched

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Britain is abandoning its first line of defence against oil tanker pollution disasters, four ocean-going tugs stationed around the coastline to help vessels in distress.

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The four tugs, put in place as a result of the calamitous oil spill from the tanker Braer, which ran aground in Shetland in 1993, are to come out of service in a fortnight as part of the Government's public spending cuts.

The move, which will save £8m a year – vastly less than the cost of dealing with any major oil spill – goes against the clear recommendations of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and is being described by concerned MPs as "inviting disaster" and "crazy".

The Government hopes that commercial tug operators will fill the gap when needed, but there is great concern that while this may happen in the Channel and the Southwest Approaches, it will be impossible in Scotland's Northern and Western Isles – which are both the most environmentally sensitive waters around Britain and the most dangerous to shipping.

The four tugs, or emergency towing vessels (ETVs), have been stationed since 1995, at public expense, in four zones around Britain: the Dover Strait, the Southwest Approaches, the Minches (the Hebrides) and Fair Isle (the Shetland Islands).

They are sturdy vessels, much stronger than harbour or coastal tugs, fitted with powerful towing gear which enables them to take even the largest supertankers under control.

They were put in place after a direct recommendation from Lord Donaldson in his report on the grounding of the Braer on the Shetland coast in January 1993, which saw nearly 85,000 tonnes of oil spilled and the mass deaths of seabirds.

The Donaldson report was a savage indictment of Britain's failure to address properly the danger of severe coastal pollution from oil tankers, and prompted a shake-up of emergency arrangements – of which the stationing of the ETVs was the most prominent measure.

Since Lord Donaldson's recommendations, three further reports have emphasised the value of and need for the tugs, the most recent written for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in 2008.

Produced by the consultancy Marico Marine, it stated: "The United Kingdom appears to have little option but to continue its involvement in the contracting of emergency towing vessels.

"Lack of capability within the commercial tug and towage sector (in effect, market failure), European Union obligations and societal expectations (zero tolerance of major marine environmental incidents) combine to dictate the need for this contingent capability."

It added: "In cost benefit terms, averting one major shipping disaster and environmental incident of the scale of the Prestige [the oil tanker which broke up off the coast of Spain in 2002] would justify a contract price far in excess of that currently being paid until its expiry in 2011 and beyond."

However, the Department for Transport believes otherwise, and as part of the comprehensive spending review from the Chancellor, George Osborne, last October, announced that government funding for the vessels would be withdrawn when the present contract expires at the end of this month.

"The Government believes state provision of ETVs does not represent a correct use of taxpayers' money, and that ship salvage should be a commercial matter between a ship's operator and the salvor," the department said.

Since then, despite vehement protests, especially from MPs and local authorities in Scotland, and from the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, the department – in the shape of the Maritime Minister, Mike Penning – has remained deaf to all appeals to rethink the decision.

"It is completely crazy," said Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South. "It is incredibly irresponsible to be without these emergency vessels, even for a day. I sympathise with the need to look after the public purse, but that cannot come before lives and before the environment. This is a very dangerous game the Department for Transport is playing."

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