HC Deb 20 March 1967 vol 743 cc1054-60

Mr. Nott (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current operations to disperse oil from the tanker, "Torrey Canyon", which is aground off the Isles of Scilly.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy went down to Plymouth yesterday afternoon to co-ordinate measures to deal with the oil pollution from the "Torrey Canyon", which is owned by the American firm Union Oil Company and was under charter to BP. He has reported that the tanker is aground possibly for three-quarters of its length on rocks 15 miles due West of Land's End and 7 miles NE of St. Martin's Island in the Scillies. It carried approximately 118,000 tons of crude oil in 18 compartments. Three of these compartments are certainly holed and probably seven more. Oil has escaped in quantities and is still escaping.

The sea area covered by oil has now extended to over 100 square miles, of which 4 or 5 square miles is heavy oil concentration and the rest is thinning and variable film. The oil is drifting to the south and the area covered is constantly increasing.

A major effort is being mounted using H.M. ships and local fishing vesels, under naval co-ordination, to spray chemical dispersant on the oil in the sea. At the last report 5,500 gallons of dispersant had already been used, but this is only a start and it is expected that at least two weeks' concentrated effort will be necessary. The Government have authorised the expenditure of up to £½ million over this period. We expect to have over twenty ships at work tomorrow.

Despite the very strenuous efforts which are being made to deal with this problem, it is obviously impossible to guarantee that none of the oil will reach the beaches in the Scilly Isles and the south west of England. But we are doing all we can to minimise this risk.

Meanwhile, discussions with the local authorities are being held and the Chancellor has authorised me to say that if the beaches are polluted the Government will consider sympathetically the question of financial help.

Mr. Nott

First of all, I would express the appreciation of the West Country of the efficient and prompt manner in which the Royal Navy took up this matter on Saturday morning, following requests from local authorities and others, and say that we welcome the fact that the Government are now treating the matter with the urgency that it deserves. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot hear the question.

Mr. Nott

May I ask the Minister, first, whether he feels that there are or can be sufficient stocks of emulsifier to deal with the problem; secondly, whether he will now consult with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government with a view to setting up emergency teams and facilities which will tackle the continuing problem of oil pollution in future; and, thirdly, whether the Government now recognise the sense of frustration on the part of hoteliers, local authorities and hon. Members at their inability to make progress with the difficulties which have continued over some years arising from oil pollution? Also, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to appoint a Minister to co-ordinate the many Ministries involved?

Mr. Healey

First, I am sure that the Royal Navy will be grateful for the tribute which the hon. Member very rightly paid to its efforts. I am sure that he did not mean to imply that Her Majesty's Government had not acted very urgently over the problem, as they did.

On the particular questions that the hon. Gentleman asked, we now have some 20,000 gallons of dispersant in Falmouth from Government and British Petroleum sources, and other supplies are coming forward. We believe that we have all the dispersant that we shall be able to distribute.

With regard to the second question about permanent teams to deal with the general problem of oil pollution, the Government will, of course, consider this, but this is a question not for me alone. I am fully aware that in many respects international handling of the oil pollution problem is unsatisfactory at the present time. Unfortunately, this is a matter which even the British Government as a whole cannot deal with alone.

Dr. Dunwoody

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that there is great concern in the far South-West that much of the oil appears to have been deliberately pumped out of the vessel in order to attempt to refloat it from the reef? Could he assure the House that steps will be taken to ensure that this does not continue. As there are nearly 100,000 tons of oil still inside the wreck, could serious consideration be given to the possibility of setting fire to the wreck and destroying the oil on the reef?

Mr. Healey

On the first question, I must point out to my hon. Friend that if the ship breaks up on the reef all the cargo is liable to be dispersed. So it is quite natural that the owners should have considered the possibility of floating it off even if it meant releasing some of the oil.

On the question of firing the ship, we now have representatives of the company from New York in Plymouth, and they have visited the boat. We are not in a position to be able to set fire to the ship until they give their agreement that this can be done. The vessel is on the high seas at the present time. However, I must tell the House that many technical and practical problems arise in firing the ship. Even if we take this step, it may be some time before the danger is finally removed.

Mr. Pardoe

Might I associate myself on behalf of my constituents with the thanks expressed to the Government for the very prompt action which they have taken? I should like to thank the naval authorities, too, not only on this occasion but for the previous occasions when they have been enormously co-operative.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to discuss with the President of the Board of Trade and the Minister of Housing and Local Government the suggestion that I made in a letter to them last July, that an insurance fund should be set up jointly between the local authorities in the coastal areas and the central Government to take care of this very eventuality?

Mr. Healey

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks will be echoed on both sides of the House.

With regard to the second part of his remarks, he will recognise that it is essentially not for me, but I will certainly ensure that his suggestion is looked at again by my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Bellenger

With regard to the latter part of my right hon. Friend's reply, surely this is or should be a matter of insurance on behalf of the shipowners and not of insurance of our local authorities or a country like ours that happens to be in the way of the large tankers coming up the Channel. Is there no means whereby the owners of the ship or the charterers could pay for the services which the British Government are rightly giving?

Mr. Healey

I am sure that my right hon. Friend's suggestion is the right way to deal with the matter, but, as I said earlier, unfortunately that involves international agreement on a very large scale, and the international situation in this respect is far from satisfactory at the moment. I should like to take this opportunity of saying that we felt it was right that, although we have no legal liability in a situation like this, we should do everything possible, whatever the cost, to prevent the oil from reaching the beaches, and that is what we are now doing.

Mr. Bessell

Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept the thanks of my constituents for the prompt way in which the Government, as well as the Royal Navy, acted in this matter? May I further ask him whether British Petroleum has any legal responsibility in view of the fact that the oil was jettisoned with the hope of refloating the ship?

Mr. Healey

I am afraid that I cannot answer the latter question without notice, but the Government are receiving every possible help from British Petroleum in dealing with this question.

Lieut.-Commander Maydon

Although I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that no reasonable cost must be spared in preventing this pollution of our beaches, or, for that matter, any beach on the Continent of Europe, may I ask whether the eventual cost of this enormous operation will fall on the British taxpayer, or will the company be liable?

Mr. Healey

I cannot answer that question without notice and, indeed, without inquiries which have yet to be completed. As I said, we felt that the important thing was to do everything possible as fast as possible to prevent the oil from reaching the beaches. The question of who pays is a question which we felt we could leave to a little later. I hope that the House agrees about that.

Mr. Murray

Has my right hon. Friend yet had any request for help to remove the ship from the reef? Are the Navy helping to do this at present?

Mr. Healey

This question is under consideration. There is a salvage team working on the ship at this moment trying to seal the holes in the bulkheads which have been breached. As I have said, I hope that it will be decided later this afternoon by the owners whether they wish to go on trying to refloat the ship or whether they would agree that steps should be taken to destroy it and to try to fire the oil aboard. But there are many difficult practical problems as well as legal problems, and I do not wish to go further on that matter

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Have either the French or the Spanish Navies offered help in this enormous task, bearing in mind that both their coastlines are potentially threatened? May I add a word of appreciation from my constituency for the action which has already been taken?

Mr. Healey

I am afraid that I have no information on approaches from those two Navies at present.

Mr. Loveys

Is the Minister aware that the financial and other help offered, welcome as it is in this instance, will sound a little ironical to those local authorities which still have a heavy burden to bear in cleaning up their beaches from oil, with no Government assistance whatever? Will he give a more definite assurance about future financial support not only in respect of oil on the sea but also in cases in which oil has to be cleared from the beaches?

Mr. Healey

I do not think that that question arises either within my competence as Secretary of State for Defence or in any sense within the terms of the original Private Notice Question.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

While associating myself with other West Country Members who have thanked the Royal Navy, may I ask whether, as an alternative to firing the ship, any consideration has been given to the possibility of offloading the fuel tanks into tenders? From photographs in the Press it appears that ships can get alongside the wreck.

Mr. Healey

No, Sir. I am afraid that I am advised that it would be hazardous in the extreme to bring another ship close enough to unload the oil from the "Torrey Canyon". This is the firm opinion of naval authorities on the spot. Some of the photographs are misleading, because the heaviest concentration of oil is actually round the ship and the sea conditions do not appear from the photographs.

Sir F. Bennett

In view of the danger which continues in spite of all that the Ministry are doing, will the Minister give an assurance that someone will give a progress report to the House in the next few days?

Mr. Healey

I will consider that.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry but I must cut out some hon. Members who have constituency interests. It is very difficult for me to do so, but I must do so.