Terms of spill inquiry upset nature groups

`Sea Empress' oil disaster: Environmentalists fear vital issues will be ignored by investigation

A dispute has broken out between the Government and environmental groups over the inquiry into last month's Sea Empress oil spill.

Ten groups, including the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Council for British Archaeology, wrote to David Dunn, the official carrying out the main inquiry for the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, to express fears it will ignore a number of vital issues.

The groups also want a wider inquiry that can consider issues with national implications, which are outside the remit of the MAIB inquiry. In the letter, Sian Pullen, a WWF marine biologist, expresses concern over whether the MAIB will consider why parts of the Donaldson inquiry into the Braer spill three years ago have not been implemented.

Dr Pullen said the MAIB should investigate the question of double hulls for vessels carrying hazardous cargoes in environmentally sensitive areas. The environmentalists are also concerned about provision of salvage tugs in the south-western approaches to Britain. The lack of salvage capacity hindered the rescue. The environmentalists want to ensure the inquiry re-examines provision of tugs, because, while Donaldson raised the issue of a possible shortage of salvors, no action has been taken since publication of his report in May 1994.

Other things that concern the groups include provision of pilotage services across Britain and the lack of "full environmental liability in shipping disasters". The groups would like shipping insurers to pay for the whole clean-up and subsequent monitoring.

The results of the inquiry into the grounding of the Borga in the same area shortly before the Sea Empress spill are expected in the next few weeks and the environmentalists want to ensure its findings are taken into account. The Borga was double-hulled and no oil was lost.

The groups are also worried only pounds 250,000 has been provided by the Welsh Office to check the effects of the initial spill and the use of dispersants. They do not feel it will be enough for long-term monitoring. They say monitoring should include not only bays and coves near the disaster, but also Lundy island, north Devon and the open sea.

As well as things like checking the population of seabirds and seals, the programme required more complex operations such as taking shellfish out regularly to check contamination and the monitoring of small sites which are not being cleaned as a way of checking how nature rejuvenates itself.

The terms of the MAIB inquiry had been widened in a Commons statement by Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, on 22 February, a spokesman for the department said. The Donaldson inquiry "was as relevant to this incident as to the Braer" and a wider inquiry would therefore duplicate much of his work.

But the groups are not satisfied. A WWF spokeswoman said: "There has been a major ecological disaster and no effort can be spared in trying to ensure it doesn't happen again. The MAIB only has a very limited scope and we need an inquiry that is able to consider both national and international ramifications."

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