`Blunders' in minutes before oil disaster

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The Independent Online
STEVE BOGGAN

Chief Reporter

The pilot and captain of the Sea Empress failed to discuss a plan of action to take the tanker into Milford Haven before she ran aground, according to an interim report on the oil spill, published yesterday.

In a finding which confirms an Independent report last month that the pilot may have had no time to formulate a plan as the tide fell, the report says no route was agreed between the two men, even though there were no language problems.

Within days of the 147,000-tonne tanker spilling 70,000 tonnes of oil off the Welsh coast, questions were being asked about the apparent failure to draw up a plan. The Department of Transport said last night that there was no legal requirement for one.

However, last month, Captain Mark Andrews, the harbour master, said pilots normally boarded in good time to discuss a plan of action with the master, in this case, the Russian captain, Eduard Bolgov.

He said: "It wouldn't be normal practice to put the pilot on so late. The difficulty can be when it takes time getting the pilot on board."

The report, by the DoT's Marine Accident Investigation Branch, shows that the ship, its crew and documentation were all in order before it ran aground on February 15. It also shows that the pilot did not board the vessel as late as port officials suggested - 7.53pm - or as early as claimed by the tanker's managers, Acomarit - 7.38pm. The MAIB said the unnamed pilot boarded at 7.40pm.

It does not say, however, whether this was early enough to beat a retreating tide that would have reached its lowest depth at 9.30pm. If that were missed, it would have been another eight hours before the Sea Empress could approach the harbour, Britain's biggest oil terminal.

The report said the pilot ordered "full ahead" at 7.44pm. It also said that published tidal information showed there would be an east-south-east tidal stream - towards the coast - at 8pm. By this time, the pilot had ordered "progressive changes to port [away from the coast to resist the tidal stream]" and the vessel was one mile from the entrance to the West Channel.

The report then paints a picture of the pilot realising the vessel was farther east than he had expected and ordering a five-degree turn to port. At 8.07pm, as the ship came alongside the Mid Channel Rock Light House, a "shuddering vibration" began. The pilot called out the waiting harbour tugs and the vessel eventually came to rest three-tenths of a mile from the Mill Buoy.

Last night, Labour repeated calls for an independent inquiry into the disaster. The shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Clare Short, said: "The most important question to be answered concerns the direction of the salvage operation. Ministers must accept their overall executive responsibility.

"An accident was turned into a disaster. We are still concerned that this inquiry will not be adequate to draw out the real responsibility for the disaster. There must be a truly independent inquiry."

Nick Ainger, the Labour MP for Pembroke, repeated the calls for an inquiry. He has consistently argued that there were too few salvage tugs available to prevent the Sea Empress for repeatedly smashing against the rocks. "A key issue is what was done by the authorities after the vessel ran aground and those questions have not yet been answered," he said

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