and JOHN ARLIDGE
on board the MV Solo
Government scientists strongly opposed the dumping of the Brent Spar at sea because of the danger of toxic contamination, according to a leaked memo seen by the Independent.
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scientists were worried about the threat to marine life posed by the heavily contaminated seawater and oily, silty sludge inside the Brent Spar's huge oil storage tanks. At the top of the memo, leaked to Greenpeace, is a handwritten note saying: "The bottom line is that the waste cannot be dumped at sea. The only option is to take ashore and treat."
The handwriting is believed to be that of Dr John Campbell, director of the Ministry's fisheries laboratory at Burnham on Crouch. The memo is from Willie McMinn, one of his staff, and says: "The chemistry of this water is such that it has to be considered very toxic to marine biota [life]. It should therefore be treated as hazardous waste and discharge should be prohibited," said the document, written in December 1993 as Shell debated disposal options for the redundant oil storage buoy with the Government.
Greenpeace disclosed the memo yesterday as the Prime Minister told the Commons that Shell had his "full support" for disposing of its Brent Spar oil platform by sinking it in the north-east Atlantic.
Mr Major said: "I have to say that I believe it is the right way to dispose of Brent Spar, in deep water. It is 150 yards tall, it is 30 yards wide. And the proposition that that could have been taken inshore in order to be disposed of inshore is, I believe, an incredible proposition."
The Ministry scientists were particularly concerned about the high levels of zinc and copper found in samples of sludge and seawater now filling the Brent Spar's 290ft-deep oil storage tanks.
Copper concentrations of several hundred milligrams per litre were found. "We recently performed a basic hazard assessment on this metal and found that toxic effects could be observed at only nine micrograms per litre,"says the memo. A microgram is one thousandth of a milligram.
It goes on to stay that the water in the Brent Spar tanks would have to be diluted at least 100,000 times "to reduce the toxicity of the discharge to an acceptable level". Effects harmful to many forms of marine life would extend for many hundreds of metres from the source of contamination.
The final decison on where and how the Brent Spar could be dumped at sea rested with the Scottish Office's Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and was made in April. But south of the border, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment were consulted.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture said its scientists had been worried in December 1993 because disposal in situ, in the relatively shallow water of Shell's Brent oilfield, was being considered. But in deep water there was less marine life to be harmed, and the toxic contaminants would be diluted to safe levels before they reached the surface and fisheries.
"This was a preliminary opinion based on information known at the time," he said. "The clear decision reached in the end was that deep-sea disposal would be in accordance with international conventions."
In the documents which Shell presented to the Government to justify deep- sea disposal, it said the worst case scenario was for the Brent Spar's tanks to rupture near the surface, soon after it began its descent to the seabed. The memo implies that if that happened the contaminated liquid would be rapidly dispersed through surface waters, killing plankton in a "plume" extending for hundreds of metres.
Greenpeace's largest and most powerful vessel, the Solo, yesterday left Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides heading for the 6,000ft-deep dump site.
It will join another vessel chartered by Greenpeace, the Altair, which has been shadowing the Brent Spar during its eight-day journey from Shell's Brent oilfield.
Two tugs are towing the 14,500 tonne structure, accompanied by four oilfield support and supply vessels. The Shell flotilla is expected to reach its destination tomorrow, 150 miles north-west of the Isle of Lewis.
Last night the biggest obstacle to Shell sinking the Spar was the continued presence of two Greenpeace activists on board the Spar. They were dropped on to it from a helicopter while it was under tow last week.
Shell's plans to sink the redundant Brent Spar, which acted as a tanker filling station in the North Sea for two decades, have brought condemnation from around Europe.
Germany's Chancellor Helmut Khol tackled John Major on the issue at last week's G7 summit in Canada. In Germany Shell stations have been firebombed and shot at, while the oil company has seen a large chunk of its sales there lost to a boycott. Public feeling against Shell is also running high in the Netherlands.
See page 2 and second section
What John Major said:
'I think the right environmental way to dispose of it is to drop it into 6,000 feet of water in the Atlantic'
What the scientist said:
'The bottom line is that the waste cannot be dumped at sea. The only option is to take ashore and treat'