HC Deb 14 June 1971 vol 819 cc30-1

1. The Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for arranging and paying for any action by the Government required for the clearance of oil at sea that threatens the coast. The task falls into two parts: (i) reporting and observation; and, (ii) clearance. The first is centred on H.M. Coastguard with assistance from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. The second is mainly the responsibility of the principal officers in charge of the Department's marine survey offices in the major ports.

2. All United Kingdom ships and aircraft, whether civil or military, are asked to report any accident or casualty to a ship which is causing or is likely to cause oil pollution, any ship seen discharging oil and the position, nature and extent of any oil slick which is seen on the sea, however caused. Fishing vessels and private yachts also participate in these arrangements. The arrangements ensure that both H.M. Coastguard and the Maritime Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence are informed of significant oil pollution incidents. The Coastguard is responsible for informing the appropriate principal officer and, if there is an immediate risk of the oil coming ashore, local authorities and the Natural Environment Research Council. The Maritime Headquarters are the focal point for action by the Navy and the R.A.F. They can assess the likely speed and movement of oil slicks and can arrange for service aircraft or vessels to keep spillages under observation. The responsibility for deciding whether further action (either reconnaissance or clearance) is needed in a particular case rests on the Department's principal officer in the area, in consultation with the Maritime Headquarters.

3. For clearance action, principal officers have arranged to hire at short notice suitable vessels, mainly sea-going tugs, for spraying oil at sea with a dispersing agent. Spraying equipment, of simple design and easily fitted to and removed from a ship, has been specially designed by the Warren Spring Laboratory and sets of this equipment have been acquired together with stocks of a dispersing agent of low toxicity. To give full coverage of the coast some 50 vessels are available, with a set of spraying equipment for each, at strategic points. These vessels can be quickly fitted with the spraying equipment, loaded with dispersant and on their way to the scene of an oil pollution incident. For greater efficiency some vessels are being converted for the permanent carriage of dispersant in bulk. The Department's spraying vessels have been in action a number of times in recent months to deal with oil spilt as a result of casualties to ships and have successfully averted major coastal pollution.

4. Arrangements have been made to obtain expert advice on areas where particular methods of treating oil would be harmful. The local authority pollution officer is required to consult the local fisheries officer (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), the Nature Conservancy regional officer (Natural Environment Research Council) and also asked to consult others knowledgeable of the area. Regional maps of natural and fish resources (including nurseries) have been prepared for their guidance. Treatment with dispersing agents is the most efficient way of dealing with oil pollution available at present, and the development of low toxicity dispersants has reduced some of the objections to this method, but other methods are being explored.

5. These plans will normally be brought into action only for a substantial spillage from an identified source, i.e. a spill resulting from a casualty to a tanker or a similar incident, or exceptionally, a spillage without an indentified source the presence of which on the sea is well authenticated and which threatens serious coastal pollution. It would not be practicable to deal with the many minor oil slicks reported which either disperse harmlessly, or are never seen again.

6. Research into the techniques for containing or dispersing oil questions is the responsibility of the Department's Warren Spring Laboratory. The laboratory's work includes research into new methods of dealing with oil at sea and on beaches, into the behaviour of oil on the sea, into methods of detecting illegal discharges of oil and into equipment for preventing or controlling the discharge of oil from ships. It keeps in close touch with work done in other countries and within the United Kingdom shipping and oil industries and co-operates with scientists of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in work to test the toxicity of oils and of the substances used for dispersing them. The Natural Environment Research Council is responsible for research into the biological effects of oil, or of dispersed oil in the marine ecosystem. The Nature Conservancy (a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council) has identified populations of sea birds which are most at risk from oil spills in coastal waters.