Loose pipes on 'Braer' possible key to oil spill

STEEL PIPES which came loose and washed around the deck of the Braer may have caused the Shetland Islands oil spill, the tanker's owners suggested yesterday.

A rack full of steel pipes 16ft (4.8m) long was seen to break loose the day before the ship drifted aground, but no one could go on deck to secure or jettison them because of the waves washing over.

In an eight-page statement, B & H Ship Management Company, based in Stamford, Connecticut, said that it had not been determined what damage, if any, the heavy steel pipes had done as the seas flung them around.

This could, however, explain how sea water entered the diesel tanks, resulting in the Braer losing its power. The statement says one or more air vent pipes which emerged on deck and were connected to the diesel fuel tanks were damaged in the foul weather and huge seas that struck the ship just after she sailed from Norway.

The company said the statement was intended to displace 'guesswork and speculation' on the part of the press. The route the tanker took, through the 25- mile strait between Fair Isle and Mainland, was safer than going south through the busier English Channel. Sailing north of Shetland 'would have been subject to worse weather and the presence of hazardous oil installations'.

The ship's boiler - needed to heat the heavy fuel oil before it is injected into the main engines - was shut down sometime after 8pm on Monday 4 January, the night before the grounding, 'to perform a routine adjustment'.

It proved impossible to restart the boiler and the fuel oil became too cool and viscous to inject into the engine. Shortly after midnight the engineers switched over to diesel fuel, which acts as a back-up to the main engine as well as powering the generators.

The engineers then noticed that there was water in a diesel fuel tank which they could not eliminate and which threatened to leave the ship without propulsion or electricity. The chief engineer was summoned at 2.30am and eventually advised the ship's master, Captain Alexandros Gelis, to head for the nearest anchorage.

At 4.36am the Braer began steering south towards an anchorage in the Moray Firth. But moments later its main engine stopped and it lost electrical power by 4.45am. 'Calculating that the vessel would slowly drift clear of the land out into the North Sea the master did not immediately require tug assistance,' the statement says.

The tug Star Sirius arrived soon after 7am, more than an hour and a half before the ship went aground, but the crew had by then been taken off.

EC all at sea, page 8