Greenpeace comes clean on Brent Spar error

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Shell yesterday welcomed a Greenpeace apology for publicising a seriously mistaken estimate of the amount of oil left on board the Brent Spar.

At the height of its successful campaign against the dumping at sea of Shell's redundant oil storage buoy, Greenpeace claimed the Brent Spar could have more than 5,000 tons of oil still in its tanks. Shell said there was only 100 tons of an oily sludge inside.

Greenpeace UK's executive director Peter Melchett has admitted the estimate was a mistake in a letter to Shell UK chairman, Dr Christopher Fay.

The energy minister, Tim Eggar, yesterday said Greenpeace's campaign against dumping the Spar 7,000ft deep in the North-east Atlantic was "completely misleading". He told BBC Radio 4: "I think the media themselves recognise they were conned." Greenpeace UK's head of science, Susan Meyer, said the organisation was obliged to own up as soon as it discovered its error. "I don't regret being honest, and I still feel extremely comfortable about the stance Greenpeace took against dumping this structure at sea," she said. "We're owning up to minor mistake."

During its campaign Greenpeace relied almost entirely on Shell's own, published statements about the quantity of toxic substances left inside the Spar. These contaminants included heavy metals and mildly radioactive salts, which Greenpeace said posed a substantial environmental threat.

While its activists were occupying the structure, they lowered containers down vent pipes leading to the crude oil storage tanks, which Shell said had been filled with seawater. From this sampling, Greenpeace concluded that the top 60ft of the 300ft tanks were filled by oil. Now Greenpeace has confessed that the sample containers may have taken oil trapped in the pipes. "We didn't take account of the length of the vent pipes," said Dr Meyer. "We regret it."

The error came to light after correspondence with Det Norske Veritas (DNV), the independent Norwegian certification authority commissioned by Shell to assess what pollutants are in the structure.

Meanwhile, two government-funded marine scientists have attacked some assumptions put forward by Shell in justifying sea dumping. Dr John Gage and Dr John Gordon, of the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, have also asked why the Government failed to consult them before approving the dumping.

Their laboratory in Oban, Scotland, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, has more knowledge about conditions on the sea bed of the dump site, the Rockall Trough, than any other. In a letter to Greenpeace, they assert a Shell-commissioned report justifying dumping was wrong to say relatively few species lived in the deep sea. They also say the analysis ignores the possibility undersea storms could bring pollution towards the surface.

The Brent Spar is anchored in a Norwegian fjord while Shell decides how to dispose of it. The company has not ruled out sea dumping.

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