The Shetland Oil Disaster: Owners deny emergency fuel tank was left empty

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The Independent Online
AN EMERGENCY fuel tank that could have provided diesel to re- start the engine of the Braer when her main tanks became waterlogged may have been empty, according to a Norwegian environmental group.

The ship's owners denied the allegation last night but the Bellona Foundation, Norway's most respected green lobby, said a shipping source and a contact at Mongstad, where the tanker loaded its crude oil cargo, had reported that an emergency tank contained no fuel. Statoil, which controls the Mongstad oil terminal, said last night that the vessel took on no fuel while there.

Frederec Hauge, Bellona's research manager, made the allegation yesterday and released confidential details of shipboard inspections at Norwegian ports that uncovered faults with the 1975 vessel. All were promptly repaired by B & H Ship Management of Connecticut in the United States, but they paint a picture of an elderly ship whose working parts needed continuous repair and replacement. Tony Redding, B & H's spokesman in Britain, said the light marine diesel fuel tanks, referred to by Bellona, were not empty. 'The tanker had all the fuel it needed to do the job,' he said. He said he had confirmed the state of the fuel tanks with a superintendent who had been on board the Braer.

Mr Hauge said Bellona's sources were 'well-placed and very well informed', adding: 'They have reason to believe that an auxiliary tank was empty when the Braer left Mongstad. Once the other tanks became contaminated with water, it would have been needed to fire the engines.'

The reports obtained by Bellona refer to inspections in two unnamed ports last February and August and Mongstad on 3 January. The group has withheld the names of two ports so as not to compromise its source.

The reports are compiled by representatives of oil terminal operators who must ensure a vessel's seaworthiness before loading. The February report says of the engine room: 'Oil/water to be removed from bottom (aft part). Leakages from main engine and waterpipes to be dealt with.' Inspectors found leaks in the pumproom and problems with broken locks on firehose boxes. The report warns the vessel will not be accepted at the terminal unless repaired. The faults were put right within 14 days.

In August, a report noted that 'extensive maintenance work' had been carried out. It went on to report leaking pipes and corroded supports and covers for piping at several locations. And: 'Several leakages on hydraulic system of steering gear . . .' All the points were addressed by the company within six weeks.

At Mongstad on 3 January, Statoil operatives noticed the ship was taking a long time to load its cargo and discovered steam pipes connected to the 'help engine' had leakages. The leaks were repaired on site.