Leading Article: A wider-ranging inquiry

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE INQUIRY announced by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, into the Shetland oil tanker disaster is much too limited in scope. It will be little more than a standard departmental Marine Accident Investigations Branch inquiry into events just before and after the Braer was grounded, the seaworthiness of the vessel and competence of the crew, and navigational safety. Mr MacGregor indicated that he might order a wider inquiry after his own visit to the scene. He should not hesitate to do so.

Naturally it is important to know precisely what human and technical factors caused the Braer to lose all power and hit the rocks; and indeed why the efforts of the powerful tug Star Sirius to secure a line and tow it to safety were unavailing. But it is even more important to reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophe recurring within polluting distance of Britain. That can only be achieved by addressing wider issues.

Foremost among these must be the desirability of allowing tankers so near to environmentally sensitive coastlines. In 1991, after a British request, the International Maritime Organisation classified a 10-mile zone to the south of Shetland as 'an area to be avoided'. Any vessel of more than 5,000 gross tonnes travelling within it can theoretically be prosecuted. The Braer was said to have run into difficulties 10 miles off Sumburgh Head. It will be for the limited inquiry to establish if it was within the designated zone. It would be for a wider inquiry to decide whether such zones should not be greatly enlarged; and indeed whether tanker operators should have complete freedom to choose their own routes through international waters.

Unilateral action is possible. The Americans imposed restrictions on how near to environmentally sensitive areas older vessels could go after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe in Alaska, and also obliged all new tankers to be double-skinned. The British government made improved stabilisers obligatory on cross-Channel ferries after the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in 1987. Yet this is a perfect opportunity for the commercial weight of the European Community to be brought to bear on an important economic and environmental issue.

The nature of salvage contracts should also be considered. The rewards for successfully salvaging a ship are high - necessarily so, given that the operation may often be dangerous. It is the ship's owners who pay. Hence the captain of the Braer's consultations with head office in New York before calling for help. The effect of existing arrangements is to delay making a ship available to salvors, as they are called, until the last possible moment, with potentially disastrous results.

The desirability of tighter controls on ships operating under flags of convenience (as does 72 per cent of British-owned merchant shipping) should also be examined. The main aim is to evade national taxes on profits and regulations on the hiring and wages of officers or crew. Crews of mixed origins without a common language are unlikely to cope well in an emergency. Only a wide-ranging and heavyweight inquiry can address such issues. It is typical of a government that has grown insensitive with power not to appreciate the extent of public anxiety to prevent another such disaster.