Leading Article: Nature despoiled by man

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S disaster in Shetland is a reminder that when airliners crash human life is lost, but when an oil tanker hits the rocks it is natural life that suffers. That may have affected approaches to safety. Last year a House of Lords committee found the maritime field to be much less effectively regulated than civil aviation. Not enough was known, for example, about the behaviour of ships as they aged and corroded; and many 'flag state' administrations were unable or unwilling to enforce the present, not very rigorous, international regulations.

Among the committee's recommendations were that the International Maritime Organisation, the main regulatory body, should move from prescriptive standards to performance-based ones; and that Britain should replace Department of Transport regulation with an independent safety authority, modelled on the Civil Aviation Authority, which would be seen to be independent of the commercial interests of British shipping.

Perhaps civil aviation has a far more advanced safety culture mainly because there is something so obviously unnatural and dangerous about ponderous airliners carrying hundreds of people through thin air several miles above the earth. There is no question of anyone entrusting themselves, or even their goods, to an airliner flying under a flag of convenience. Sailing upon the high seas, by contrast, seems a relatively natural - even if hazardous - activity, conducted since a good 2,000 years before Christ for purposes of both trade and conquest.

Whether the implementation of the Lords committee's sensible-sounding recommendations might have averted yesterday's disastrous grounding on the southern tip of Shetland of the Liberian-registered oil tanker Braer will be for the experts to assess. From the evidence so far, however, it seems to have been a very banal accident: a large tanker (though not a super-tanker) hits very high seas on its way from a Norwegian oil terminal to Canada. Somehow, water gets into its fuel tank, which causes the engine to stall. Gale force winds drive the helpless ship on to the rocks, where the rough seas seem certain to break it up.

So far there seems to be no evidence of negligence or incompetence on the part of the captain, crew or rescue services. Even if heavier tugs had been available, they might not have been able to save so heavily laden a tanker in such high seas. Equally, experts reckon it would have made no difference if the Braer had been made with a double hull (two thicknesses of steel), as now prescribed by American regulations. The main questions seem to be: first, should a laden tanker have been so relatively near a coast internationally important for its bird life when a severe storm had been amply forecast? Second, how did water penetrate a fuel tank?

The impact on bird and animal life will be disastrous. There can be few more poignant symbols of man's rape of the natural world than those images of oil-soaked birds and sea mammals burnt into our memories by oil slick disasters, from the Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967, through the Amoco Cadiz off Brittany in 1978 and the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989, to the Aegean Sea off Corunna last month. There will be many prayers this week that this latest disaster will not be in quite the same league.