Sordid affair that bespoils the sea

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The Independent Online
Like many journalists, I am a stationery freak. I love browsing among paper and ink, particularly in old-fashioned emporia. I like the thickness of a notebook, the smoothness of a pen. But nothing can provide as much fun as a brown envelope.

I am talking about the occasional, glorious, anonymous envelope concealing a batch of leaked documents. One turned up the other day, though at second hand from Greenpeace, the original recipient. Its contents cast light on a scandalous relationship between the Department of Trade and Industry and the off-shore oil operators it both promotes and is supposed to police.

Readers with long memories may recall a story we ran last October showing that the DTI kept no records of pollution incidents. Until two years ago, it had only one part-time inspector to cover the 200 off-shore structures and has prosecuted only once for pollution in a quarter of a century. There may, of course, be no connection, but pollution from British installations is much the worst in the North Sea.

All this was dug out by a small pressure group, the Marine Conservation Society. The DTI first said it would be "impractical" to provide the information, but recanted when reminded that EU law compelled it.

The new leak is a letter from a top department official warning the UK Offshore Operators Association that the society was "pushing ever harder for the release of environmental information", indicating that this was being provided reluctantly, and appearing to ask the industry's views on what to do.

The department denies this shows "collusion" between regulator and regulated, but it looks pretty cosy to me. In opposition, Labour denounced the relationship. I wonder what will happen now ...

If anything gives me more pleasure than a leaked document, it is seeing action following an article. There are signs of this over the "chill can" exposed on our front page last month. You may remember the nifty invention which cools warm drinks at the touch of a button, but releases HFC 134a, a gas 3,400 times more effective in heating up the planet than carbon dioxide.

Last week it won an award at the Cannex exhibition in Singapore. California's Joseph Company, its inventor, boasted it was "good for the environment" claiming, in a curious leap of logic, that it "reduces the ozone-depleting emissions from leaky old refrigerators and dirty portable generators in developing countries".

But an extraordinary alliance is now forming. ICI and Dupont, the two leading makers of the gas, say they will not sell it for the cans. The association representing European manufacturers wants an agreement with drink makers to avoid it: Whitbreads and Guinness have already pledged to do so. And Environment Minister Michael Meacher last week persuaded the European Commission to investigate.

Greenpeace has been dozy on this issue, putting out a ritual condemnation of the can, but not thinking it's important enough to take action. The World Wide Fund for Nature, by contrast, has lobbied 11 European Environment ministers. Watch this space.

o OF COURSE, brickbats arrive too - like a letter protesting at last week's column on fast breeder reactors. I rang the writer, Mr Erskine of Knutsford, who worked for the old United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) - which used to run the reactors - and we agreeably agreed to disagree. We publish his letter this week on page 24, and I promised to substantiate my views further here.

He wants me, for example, to justify my statement that the reactors are particularly dangerous, and says reactor-grade plutonium cannot be made into an effective bomb. The UKAEA itself once estimated that an accident could be 10 to 100 times worse in a fast breeder than in an ordinary reactor. The US has actually exploded a bomb made of reactor plutonium ("We put it in a hole in the ground and shot it off," the great bomb maker Carson Mark once told me) and other top bomb makers and Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (then headed by Lord Flowers, on UKAEA's board) have concluded that the nuclear terrorist threat is all too real.

Mind yoy, complacency also gives would-be terrorists other opportunities. Some years ago, protesters took a bazooka (unloaded) onto Stratford station in east London, pointed it at a rail truck carrying nuclear waste, in full view of railway staff, and pulled the trigger. The then British Rail said it was not its job to apprehend people carrying rocket launchers and they had "a perfect right" to be there, as long as they had bought a platform ticket.