Letter: Tanker lesson was ignored

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Sir: I cannot accept the assertion by Viscount Goschen, the Minister for Shipping (letter, 18 February) that the Government's only interest is to ensure that the facts are established and all the lessons learnt. He was referring to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and its report into the grounding of the Sea Empress in February 1996 and the spillage of 72,000 tons of crude oil.

This particular report is not yet published, but another very relevant report by the MAIB has been. This relates to the grounding of the Norwegian tanker Borga in the entrance to Milford Haven Waterway on 29 October 1995. The Borga was loaded with 112,000 tons of crude oil at the time. Here was a modern, well-maintained tanker, with a pilot on board, in good clear weather, going aground due to minor technical difficulties.

Luck was on Milford Haven's side that morning: the weather remained good and the third salvage attempt was successful. No pollution occurred. Concerned at a possible recurrence of the apparent steering failure during Borga's transit, the Coastguard Agency insisted that the vessel was provided with a escort tug when she sailed for Hamburg after completing discharge.

Yet the long-term lesson was missed entirely, as proved by the grounding of the unescorted Sea Empress some three months later. Fully laden tankers should all be provided with adequately powered tugs, which would take up position before these vessels approach any marine oil terminal in the UK. Tug charges would be a minor cost in comparison to the pounds 126m that the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund has ready to pay for the Sea Empress damage claims, for example.

It is a reflection of how much we ignore the lessons provided by tanker accidents that the Sea Empress entered Milford Haven Waterway two hours before low water, unaided.

SIMON D A BROGAN

Stronsay, Orkney

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