Letter: Supertankers heading for the rocks

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The Independent Online
Sir: The first anniversary of the Sea Empress disaster falls on 15 February. Little progress has been made since.

The Sea Empress ran on to rocks because, like all tankers of its size, it was dangerously unmanoeuvrable and far too massive to be towed out of danger by any tugs in the world. Bringing ships which take many minutes to turn, and many miles to stop, into coastal waters invites disaster. Expecting tugs to pull them out of danger ensures that the disasters will become catastrophes.

Oil tanker design, driven by international speculation, has evaded all effective regulation since the Second World War. None of the disaster inquiries has questioned the fundamental flaws in these monstrous ships. Either because they were confidential (Sea Empress), ill-composed (Braer) or charged with restricted terms of reference (Exxon Valdez), none of the inquiries addressed the fundamental questions of tanker design and tanker size.

The latest perverse decision by the British government to hush up the Sea Empress disaster within an in-house inquiry ensures that further such catastrophes will occur, and can only fuel speculation that they already believe themselves to be legally and financially responsible for what occurred in Milford Haven that night 12 months ago.

Since the British government isn't going to come clean, we must lobby Neil Kinnock, the EU Commissioner for Transport, to hold a proper open inquiry, not only into the Sea Empress, but into the general question of supertanker safety.

Between 30 and 60 per cent of all supertankers cause a devastating pollution incident (more than 10,000 tonnes of oil spilled) during their lives (US National Academy of Science figure).


(Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Wales, Cardiff)


(Remote Sensing Unit, University College London)

London SW4