HC Deb 13 January 1971 vol 809 cc160-7

In subsection (1) of section 8 of the Oil in Navigable Waters Act 1955 there shall be added at the end thereof, 'and every harbour authority shall provide such facilities free of charge at such berth', and subsection (3) of that section is hereby repealed.—[Mr. Booth.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Booth

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Clause would require all British harbour authorities to provide facilities for the discharge of oily water and waste oil at every one of their berths. The aim of the Clause is to enable ships' engineers to discharge waste oil whenever a ship is berthed for loading or for unloading or for any other purpose alongside a berth in a British harbour.

There are a number of means whereby this can be done. There can be a piping system within the harbour which couples to each berth. There can be tanks alongside each berth. The point of the Clause in requiring such facilities to be at every berth is a recognition of the fact that it is a very expensive operation to shift a vessel which has been alongside one berth, say, for the purpose of loading, to another berth for the purpose of discharging oily waste into facilities provided alongside that berth. Apart from the generally rising costs of docks and harbour dues, there is the very high operating cost of vessels, the necessity of catching limited tides, and so on. Therefore, an assential feature of the Clause is that it requires the facilities to be placed at every berth.

The other feature of the Clause which will be unique in British law is that it would require the provision of facilities to be free of charge. The reason for this is that we should within our law enshrine the idea that there should be no option about using the facilities. The idea of being able to pay a charge and use the facility or not pay a charge and not use it carries with it an implication that one may or may not require to use the facilities. In light of the problems of oil pollution in navigable waters, it should be an accepted practice that a ship coming alongside for the purpose of loading or unloading will at the same time want to discharge some waste oil. Whether it be waste oil from washing an oil fuel-ballast tank or waste oil which has been accumulated from the lubricating system or oily bilge water is not important. The concept should be that ships coming alongside for any purpose should take that occasion to discharge waste oil.

In this connection I quote briefly from a paper given at the Rome Conference on Oil Pollution by the Chairman of the Nordic Union for the Prevention of Oil Pollution of the Sea, a body which has done some excellent work in this field: …one of the strongest inducements to mariners to dump oily residues unlawfully into the sea is known to be their fear of incurring the displeasure of their owners if they lose time or involve their ships in expense by using facilities in port …". These words used by a man who is an absolute authority on the subject make it perfectly clear that it is generally held to be the case that a skipper would incur his owner's displeasure if he involved him in the expense of using facilities or if he took up any time in port to discharge waste oil. This was a statement of the general position. I do not doubt that there are some enlightened owners and some highly principled skippers who, irrespective of this general consideration, meticulously on coming into port take the opportunity, even if it means re-berthing vessels or holding the ship for another tide, to get rid of their oily waste, but I question whether this is the general position and I put it to the House in all seriousness that a very large amount of oil is dumped into the sea because of the cost and time involved in getting rid of that waste oil into proper facilities ashore.

8.15 p.m.

There are two types of oil waste discharge with which we are now principally concerned. There is the oily waste that comes about as the result of the washing of the tanks of large tankers. The adoption by the best tanker companies of the "load on top" method has reduced to a very considerable extent pollution from this source.

The other category is the waste that accumulates from using the oily waste separator processes on board ship, whether they be the settling out type of separator or the centrifugal type of separator. These processes result inevitably in a number of ships, particularly British and Swedish ships which are required by law to have the separators for certain purposes anyway, coming into port with a considerable amount of waste oil.

In addition, I think that we must envisage the necessity in a certain number of tanker cleaning processes for additional facilities for putting waste oil ashore. The first reason for this is that, even using the "load on top" method, the amount of settling out which can take place and, therefore, the percentage of water from the tank which can safely be discharged at sea without contamination depends to a considerable degree on the sea conditions when the vessel is coming towards the port.

If the vessel has had a rough passage all the way from its last port of discharge to the port where it is to pick up and has washed during that period, the continuous motion of the ship will reduce the amount of settling out which can take place in the vessel and will, therefore, reduce the percentage of water which can be discharged without causing any contamination. Therefore, if at the end of a rough voyage a ship comes in with 6 inches or 10 inches of water in her tanks which is still heavily contaminated, the ship's operators must decide whether they are to discharge that or accept as the penalty for properly using the "load on top" method that they must forfeit that amount of carrying volume in their ship on the next voyage.

For this reason, we must ensure that even when comparatively large tankers come alongside there are facilities for discharging a large quantity of what is the oil-contaminated water of a washing process rather than the water-contaminated oil of the separator process.

The second reason is that I believe that it is right to a certain extent in this form of legislation to anticipate technological improvement in the oil/water separator technology; that is, although tanker companies will not at this stage admit that they can, without involving themselves in expense which is repugnant to themselves, put all of their discharge overboard through an oil/water separator process, the time is not far distant when it will be economically viable to put all oily water discharge overboard, where there is any marginal doubt as to oil content, through the oil/water separator process. For this reason, it will soon be necessary to have these additional facilities even where they are not immediately necessary at present.

If this type of operation were done on a large scale by port authorities, it might be run even at a profit rather than its being an expensive operation. Where there can be in stable shore conditions a settling-out tank, the large volume gained from having these settling-out facilities in port might be a source of income to a port. However, whether or not the provision of such a facility is a source of income to the port is not our major consideration on the Clause. Our major consideration must be that we should not let this legislation go through the House while it can still be said that there is a considerable degree of obligation on a skipper to get rid of oil at sea rather than use such facilities because of cost or inconvenience.

Therefore, I strongly urge the Minister to accept the Clause, to ensure that at least the United Kingdom will be able to say to the other maritime nations, "We are not only imposing fines on people whom we catch putting oil into the sea, but we are making it as easy and convenient as possible for any ship coming into a British port to discharge waste oil into facilities which are there for that purpose while the ship is carrying out other normal operations which require it to be at the berth".

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I am concerned about one aspect of the Clause, though I have a great deal of sympathy with the case which the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) has just made. While he was speaking I looked up the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1955. The hon. Gentleman's case is very cogent, and the Government should give further consideration to it.

Unfortunately, in Section 22 of the Act the definition of oil extends much further than we would wish. It says: 'oil' means oil of any description and includes spirit produced from oil of any description, and also includes coal tar". I need go no further, because my point concerns spirit. There are a number of tiny ports in the United Kingdom which do not receive by tanker oil in the sense that the hon. Gentleman and I mean it but which receive petroleum spirit, which does not have residues of the kind referred to. It would help to achieve the aim which the hon. Gentleman has in mind if "oil", for the purpose of the Clause, were redefined to mean what we both think of as oil, excluding petroleum spirit and aviation spirit, where such problems do not arise.

Perhaps I may speak parochially for a moment. Quite a lot of petrol, and possibly paraffin, comes up the Exeter Canal by tanker, with the advantage of reducing congestion on the roads. A requirement to provide facilities for heavy oil, which never arrives in that way, would be onerous and is not what either the hon. Gentleman or I intend.

If my hon. Friend could undertake that in another place further consideration will be given to the Clause, with a view to restricting it to heavy oils and excluding petroleum spirit, I think we shall achieve our objective without imposing an unreasonable burden where it would obviously be inapplicable but for the definition Section of the 1955 Act.

Mr. Anthony Grant

The Clause would abolish the right of harbour authorities to make reasonable charges for oil reception facilities provided by them or on their behalf in pursuance of Section 8 of the 1955 Act, and it would require such facilities to be provided free of charge. I never believe in relying on purely drafting points, but I should point out that the words at such berth are not understood, since no "berth" is referred to in the Clause or in Section 8 of the 1955 Act.

The proposal has certain attractions. Its intention is to make sure that no obstacle is put in the way of the use of shore reception facilities for the disposal of oily wastes when the alternative is disposing of them into the sea. I entirely sympathise with the objective of the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), and it is something which my Department has very much in mind.

However, in considering whether proper use is made of shore reception facilities we must make a distinction between the position as it is now and as it will be when the new restrictions provided for by the Bill come into force. At present the two classes of vessel which have most need to use shore facilities are tankers and vessels about to undergo repair. These are not relevant in the context of the new Clause, because the responsibility for providing facilities for them rests with the oil terminal operators and the repair yards respectively. It is not laid upon harbour authorities by Section 8 of the 1955 Act.

That means that we are concerned here with dry cargo ships alone, therefore. In their case, those which use their bunker fuel tanks for water ballast are already required to be fitted with oil/water separators. Many others fix separators voluntarily. I am advised that the normal practice of such ships is to return the oil which is recovered by the separator to the bunkers, so that for this purpose there is no need to use shore reception facilities at all.

As regards oily water from engine-room bilges, the Convention at present provides a specific exception where the oil is only lubricating oil, so that it is not illegal to discharge such an oily mixture outside territorial waters. This is not a big exception in theory, but it affords an excuse for discharges of bilges containing other oils, and it is very difficult for us to prove an offence. Against that background it is perhaps not surprising that not very much use is made of the shore reception facilities provided by the harbour authority.

Moreover, where masters of ships are tempted to ignore the facilities and discharge their oily residues illegally, I suspect that the inconvenience and delay in getting a ship alongside the shore facility is a more important factor in their minds than any charge made for the use of the facility. I think that the hon. Gentleman himself recognises that.

When the amendments to the Convention are brought into force, it will no longer be permitted to discharge engine-room bilge water containing lubricating oil. That loophole will be removed, and we hope that effective enforcement will thereby become practical. Shipowners will, therefore, have to decide how to comply with the new requirement, either by providing effective means of excluding oil from any bilge-water that is discharged or by discharging the oily water ashore. We in my Department have every intention of making sure that this requirement is effectively enforced. With the assistance of the higher penalties now provided in the Bill, I think that this is the right way of seeing that shore reception facilities are used whenever appropriate, and it is preferable to seeking a way to subsidise their use.

But there is one much more important positive objection to the new Clause. Even under the new regulations it will not be every ship that has a need to use shore reception facilities. One would imagine that it will probably be the minority. If harbour authorities were prohibited from making specific charges for the use of their facilities, they would have to recover their costs by charges on the generality of port users, and, therefore, the whole body of port users would be required to pay for facilities for which, one would hope, only a minority would have a use. The subsidy to that minority would be at the expense of those owners who had provided their ships with alternative satisfactory means of dealing with oil residues. I do not think it would be desirable, fair or right to impose an extra cost upon them. For that reason, I hope that the House will reject the new Clause, attractive though it may be.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Gentleman relied rather heavily on the fact that if these so-called "free" facilities were made available—and he was right in this—they would not be free because the cost incurred by some users would be spread through the whole of the users of a particular port. On Merseyside we are conscious of the cost of port facilities of this kind, as any other hon. Member from any other port must be.

But I challenge the hon. Gentleman on one point. He said that only a minority of the users of any port are using the facilities at this time, or ought to be using them. If he goes back over the statistics and the information he can get, he will find that, while it is still only a minority of the total number using any port, it is an ever-increasing minority. It may well be that in a few years' time it will be the majority. There is nothing to stop the hon. Gentleman from later consideration of the idea in this new Clause, and I think he will find that there will be a majority as the years go by. If, then, a majority of the users of a port who ought to be using these facilities are paying for them through a general levy so that they are paying for them in any case, they may well be encouraged to use them.

Many of the facilities of our ports in the United Kingdom are old. If we are to spread through the whole range of port facilities the provision of pipelines or berths to ensure enough tanker berths, the cost will be very great. It may be that the hon. Gentleman's Department will be advised to look at the facilities that are being provided in the new ports under construction—for example, the Seaforth scheme, the Gillingham scheme and the new London Docks. Perhaps we can even speak of a possible Foulness port. The idea that these installations should be planned and built into these new facilities and ports is very worthy of consideration.

Question put and negatived.

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