The Shetland Oil Disaster: Safety standards under attack

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THE GOVERNMENT came under pressure to strengthen tanker safety rules as Opposition parties attacked it for failing to impose tighter restrictions following the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

Field Marshal Lord Carver, who chaired a House of Lords select committee inquiry last year, meanwhile insisted that the Shetland disaster could have been avoided had the Government implemented a recommendation for 'total safety management' systems for individual tankers.

Even government ministers appeared to concede the need for tougher rules to control where tankers can sail, despite a statement from Lord Caithness, the shipping minister, that the vessel was in an international shipping lane and within its rights.

There were indications yesterday that John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, had been considering widening the normal Department of Transport Marine Accident Investigations Branch inquiry to include an independent assessor.

But Mr MacGregor, who may visit the scene of the disaster today, later announced a standard inquiry. The MAIB will investigate the causes of the disaster, action taken to prevent it, action taken afterwards, seaworthiness of the vessel, competence of the crew and the safety of navigation.

Earlier, Labour's environmental protection spokesman, Chris Smith, said US legislation after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which insisted that all new tankers had double hulls, had been accompanied by restrictions on how near to environmentally sensitive areas older vessels could go. Britain should have done the same, he said.

Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, whose home is a quarter of a mile from the stricken Braer, warned of the dangers of a major tanker spill off the islands in a letter to the then shipping minister, Patrick McLoughlin, in April 1991. 'Now it looks as if Shetland islanders will have to pay over many years for the Government's complacency,' Mr Wallace said.

A Department of Transport spokesman said there were difficulties with interfering with ships' 'right of innocent passage' on the high seas. A 1991 International Maritime Organisation resolution urged ships of more than 5,000 gross tonnes to avoid areas to the south, west and north of Shetland, he said, but it was not mandatory.

Lord Carver said the Government should have accepted his committee's recommendation that all tankers should be categorised according to risk, with each having load and speed limits related to age and condition.