HC Deb 16 May 1990 vol 172 cc899-905 4.12 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the devastation caused by oil pollution along the south Devon coastline.

The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

At 15.09 on Saturday 12 May a collision took place between the Liberian-registered oil tanker Rosebay and the Brixham trawler Dionne Marie 14 miles south of Start point. Rosebay sustained damage to her port side, which resulted in about 1,100 tonnes of crude oil being spilt into the sea. The master immediately took action to minimise the extent of the spill, by transferring oil from the damaged tank into other tanks. Within 90 minutes the oil leak ceased. The marine pollution control unit was informed of the collision by Brixham coastguard at 15.25 and activated its counter-pollution aircraft at 15.30. The first aircraft began spraying at 18.00.

The marine accident investigation branch is investigating the collision. Its initial findings are that it was the duty of the fishing vessel under the international collision regulations to give way, but her watchkeeper did not see the tanker and made no alteration of course. The tanker took evasive action but it did not prevent the collision. Visibility at the time was approximately three to four miles. The MAIB report into the collision will be completed as soon as possible.

The dispersant spraying operations, which continued the next day, successfully dispersed 75 per cent. of the spilled oil. However, the remaining 25 per cent. emulsified with sea water to form an estimated 700 tonnes of what in the industry is called "mousse", which does not respond to treatment with dispersant. With natural breakdown that has now reduced to 400 tonnes. Had the dispersant spraying not taken place the original spill would have emulsified into some 3,500 tonnes of mousse. That would have had to be either recovered at sea—a difficult, slow, and weather-dependent process— or cleared off the beaches.

A joint Government-local authority response centre has been set up to direct and control the beach-cleaning operations. The area is difficult, with rocky cliffs and fast-flowing estuaries. There are several important amenity beaches, some bird colonies and an area designated as one of outstanding natural beauty. The MPCU is overseeing the preparation of detailed plans for clean-up by the local authorities. Appropriate techniques and storage sites have been identified.

The main beach-cleaning effort began at first light today. Local authority and MPCU equipment was deployed to appropriate access points during the course of yesterday evening. The main emphasis will be on the mechanical recovery of oil from amenity beaches and accessible rocky areas, pressure washing of hard surfaces and the eventual use of dispersants for final clean-up where that is essential. Much of the rocky areas will be inaccessible and the only option will be to watch for oil moving from those areas to more sensitive ones. Extra specialist personnel provided by the MPCU from the Warren Spring laboratory have been allocated to South Hams district council, which is bearing the brunt of the pollution. In addition, trained operators will accompany specialist equipment as it is deployed, to advise on use.

I pay tribute to the local authorities involved for their preparation, which enabled them to make a rapid response to what is obviously a major threat to an area of outstanding natural beauty. Their concern is shared fully by myself and local Members of Parliament. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is on the Bench with me. It was because of the prompt action of the Department of Transport's marine pollution control unit that 75 per cent. of the oil did not reach the shore.

Mr. Steen

The oil spillage is a major catastrophe for one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I pay tribute to the Minister for alerting me to the problem and then keeping closely in touch with me as the progress of the slicks was reported to him.

The first problem is that although the damage has been curtailed to about 12 miles of the 88 miles of heritage coastline, which is a great tribute to the Government and the county council, it still means that 12 miles of beaches are saturated by oil. In one place— Challaborough beach, Bigbury— it is up to 18 in. deep. A great deal of work needs to be done. How will those involved disperse 12 in. of oil on some of the heritage coastline? Where will they put all the oil and sand that they clean?

Can my hon. Friend confirm that both public and private beaches will be cleaned and that some of the inaccessible coves will be approached by helicopter? Devon county council has said that helicopters are not available. Will my hon. Friend make them available if required? Will the services of the military be called upon if necessary? There are 700 commandos in my constituency, the Royal Naval college at Dartmouth and also HMS Cambridge. Will the military be called upon for immediate action should that be required?

There has been good co-ordination at local level, but to deal with the mousse once it has landed on the shore, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food needs to issue a licence. Devon county council and South Hams district council fear that getting a licence out of MAFF may mean a further delay. Can my hon. Friend help with that? There are five fine estuaries as well as a number of other inlets. Is everything being done to ensure that oil does not get up the estuaries?

The area is one of the finest in Britain for the tourist industry. Will my hon. Friend say something about that industry and about what will happen to those whose livelihoods have been affected by this terrible spillage? As to the remedial action that is being carried out by his Department, Devon county council and South Hams district council, to which I pay tribute, will the Minister confirm that no cost will fall on the community charge payer and that the Government will find ways of funding it entirely from the centre?

This is a catastrophe of a type which has never happened to this coastline before. We have to learn something about the cause.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a question to the Minister. The hon. Gentleman might apply for an Adjournment debate to make all these points.

Mr. Steen

I am grateful to you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Minister intend to investigate not only the cause of the accident but whether oil tankers should be lying along the south Devon coastline for many hours? Should not some of the larger oil tankers have double skins to protect them from such a collision? Will the Minister say something to the people of south Devon to help them deal with the terrible tragedy?

Mr. McLoughlin

I shall try to respond to the many points that my hon. Friend put to me. I can understand that the cost, and the matter of who will meet it, will cause concern to my hon. Friend's constituents. I give him a total assurance that the cost of the clean-up operation will be met entirely by the polluter. There is insurance cover on the tanker. There will be no cost to community charge payers. I am sure that my hon. Friend and his constituents will be grateful for that. It is in line with Government policy that the polluter should pay for the damage that he does. That is an important point, which needs to be made.

If there are any problems about getting agreement from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, we shall be ready to help. We have already obtained from the Ministry the permission that is necessary to use dispersants. We keep in close contact with the Ministry. I do not foresee any difficulty, but if there is, we shall take it up.

Special action is being taken to try to safeguard the estuaries. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out a great difficulty in that there are a number of estuaries in the area. A great effort is being made to protect them by putting booms across to try to stop the oil going up the estuaries.

Tourism is an important point. It is impossible to give a definitive estimate as to when all the oil will be cleaned up, but I very much hope that within two weeks we shall have restored as best we can some of the worst affected areas. I assure my hon. Friend that the restoration operation will apply to the whole coastline. There will be difficulty in the more inaccessible parts, which are rocky and treacherous. Obviously, we could not put anybody in danger. My hon. Friend asked about the use of helicopters. That will be considered. If it is thought the most appropriate way to help, we shall take advice on it.

My hon. Friend asked about the use of the Army. At the moment we feel that there are enough people and facilities in place. However, should we think it necessary to call on the resources of the armed forces, that option is open to us, but we do not yet feel that that is necessary.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Does my hon. Friend accept that serious though the incident is—it is very serious, particularly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen)—if prompt action had not been taken by the marine pollution control unit, we would have had a massive environmental disaster, stretching not just along the Devonshire coast but along the coast of Cornwall? Will my hon. Friend deal with a point that he did not answer? Will he assure the House that there will be a thorough inquiry into how the collision took place?

Mr. McLoughlin

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the marine pollution control unit, headed by Captain McLeod, and the people who work in it. There was a very prompt response. The unit was informed at 15.25 and was spraying at 18.00. If it had not been for the speed of the response, the position would have been more serious, as my hon. Friend said. I assure my hon. Friend, as I said previously, that an accident investigation is being carried out at the moment and that any lessons that can be learned from it will certainly be learned.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Above all, I welcome the Minister's statement that the polluter and not the poll tax payer will pay. Will he confirm that the polluter will be prosecuted if any offence has been committed, and that that is being actively investigated? There has been a comprehensive response but sadly it has not been sufficient, and it has not stopped damage to the environment. To that extent, the response has without doubt been too little, or too late, or both. Therefore, given that the estuaries are now at risk as well as the coastline, will the Minister say what action is being taken? I understand that booms are not restraining the oil but have been breached, and that oil is now going up into the estuaries on the Devon coast. Is action being taken to deal with that as well as the other matters that I mentioned?

Mr. McLoughlin

We have been given constant prophecies of doom and gloom by the hon. Gentleman. He started on Monday with a question on energy, telling us that the community charge payer would have to pay. If he had taken the time and trouble to investigate and to find out the facts, he would have realised that that is not the case and that the polluter will pay. It is typical of the hon. Gentleman to say that the response is too little, too late. As far as he is concerned, anything that was done would have been too little and too late. I regard setting up an operation within two or three hours of the incident being reported as very effective. We have 3,000 miles of coastline to protect around the United Kingdom and the Department does an excellent job in protecting it.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

My hon. Friend knows that people who live and work along the Devon and Cornwall coast lie in fear and trepidation of such events, and we are grateful for the speed with which the problem was tackled. Will my hon. Friend investigate the links between oil companies and detergent companies? Is he aware that many detergent companies are owned by oil companies, so the companies that create the problem in the first place make a profit out of trying to clean it up? Will he study his files? He mentioned Warren Spring laboratory. If he looks at the old files, he will see that I tried and failed some 16 years ago to get the Department to take seriously an invention by one of my constituents, who was driven out of business because oil companies wanted to go on selling detergents rather than see my constituent's Oil Mop company come to successful fruition. Will he carry out a full investigation so that at some time in the future we may be able to prevent people who have a commercial interest in selling detergents from having a first crack of the whip and let those who have the technology lift oil from the water at an early stage before it comes ashore?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. All the responses to deal with such problems are directed by the marine pollution control unit. It says what should be used and charges the polluter for any costs incurred by the Department of Transport.

I cannot accept some of the theory behind what my hon. Friend said—that somehow masters of oil tankers and other vessels go all out to cause collisions so that companies can benefit from the clean-up operation. Such accidents are serious and it is to the master's credit that he immediately switched tanks to stop any further spill going into the sea. Of course we shall investigate any complaints that my hon. Friend draws to our attention. However, I congratulate those involved on what has been a fairly successful operation. It has not been totally successful. I wish that it had been, as it would have saved us all a lot of trouble and it would also have prevented some devastating effects on the coastline. We regret that there has been pollution, but I assure my hon. Friends that everything is being done to ensure that that pollution is removed as soon as possible.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Minister said that the polluter will have to pay. Is he aware that this has the makings of a long-drawn-out legal wrangle? The case of the disaster off Alaska is still being resolved in the courts and the case arising from the disaster off Birkenhead has not yet been settled. I cannot imagine that as there has been a collision there will not be contending parties who will say, "It is not my fault." The Government have a responsibility not to stay at arm's length, but to make it abundantly clear to all those working for local authorities in Devon and for other organisations that might have to foot the bill, that while the wrangling is going on in court, the Government will ensure that money is in place. Otherwise it will be paid for in the community charge. The Minister has to answer those questions so that people in Devon fully understand the consequences.

Mr. McLoughlin

Not only is the vessel insurance cover about £8 million, but the United Kingdom is a member of an international organisation that provides compensation of up to £30 million for oil pollution. I do not think that the Alaska oil spill was covered by such an international agreement.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Will my hon. Friend comment on the availability of resources to the marine pollution control unit? It clearly acted with the utmost speed, but it may not have had sufficient resources to saturate the problem. Will he have discussions with the armed forces, particularly the Navy, to see whether the pollution dispersant can be made available to them at immediate notice in the same way that helicopters are made available for sea rescue? Can my hon. Friend assure me that the slicks will not reach Dorset? Finally, if the fishing vessel, not the carrier, is shown to have been at fault, will the insurance held by the carrier compensate those affected?

Mr. McLoughlin

An investigation is going on and it would be wrong for me to apportion blame at this stage. The dispersant is on 24-hour standby and a number of planes which I inspected two weeks ago, are already part of the marine pollution control unit and on standby. We have also substantially increased the number of hours flown around our coastline for observation purposes. Therefore, quite a lot is being done in that regard. Ships were on their way within two hours, so that was a satisfactory response. However, we are always ready to learn from any incident.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) is fortunate in representing one of the most beautiful constituencies, and one that I visit every year. However, I am worried by my hon. Friend the Minister's statement earlier that the fishing vessel may have been at fault. If so, any amount of insurance that is carried by the oil company will be worthless and there will be legal wrangles. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), in one of his rare gleams of sense, has put his finger on the important point of who will provide the money while the matter is being sorted out. Will my hon. Friend take a personal interest in the matter and visit the site so that he can experience at first hand its natural beauty? Perhaps he can fly over the site in a helicopter to see the extent of the damage.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am assured that in this case the polluter will pay and that there will be no problem about the recovery of the money. That is the best advice that I have. I was in Devon last week, admittedly in north not south Devon, but I am only too well aware of the outstanding beauty of the area.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In response to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce), the Minister said, doubtless in good faith, that he hoped that everything possible was being done, but is not the anecdotal evidence that some of us have from the North sea coast that the marine pollution control unit is chronically and seriously under-resourced? May we have any facts that the Minister has on the amount of money that has been spent on it, what the estimates are for a proper unit which, sure enough, will be needed sooner or later, how that will be achieved and what, in the view of his expert advisers, is the shortfall? This is a serious issue.

Mr. McLoughlin

I reject what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am satisfied that we have an effective marine pollution control unit, which responded within a short time of being notified. Within five minutes of the head of the unit being told of the incident, an aircraft was flying to the site. Had it not been for that speedy reaction, we should be dealing with a far more serious incident.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

I am grateful for the opportunity to question the Minister on this subject. However, I hoped that his hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport would be present to issue a statement on the tragic deaths of four railway workers this morning on the Metropolitan line. Perhaps a note could be sent to me about that.

The House is grateful to the Minister for announcing an inquiry into the Rosebay incident. Can he say whether the Liberian authorities have agreed to co-operate? Will he publish the report, and will he ensure that the inquiry examines the level of crewing on the tanker and establishes whether their skills and training were adequate for accident prevention and were properly employed on this occasion? Can he confirm that the tanker was in its correct navigational lane? After similar incidents— for example, the Amoco Cadiz and Torrey Canyon disasters— separate tanker lanes were enforced, reducing the danger of tankers passing near to land.

Does the Minister agree that the devastating effects of the accident might have been avoided if the tanker had had a double skin? There is growing international support for a requirement for all tankers to have double skins, to avoid oil spillage. Will he join me in condemning the economic expediency that rejects such measures, and puts profits before the protection of the environment?

The Minister will be aware that discussions are taking place in the International Maritime Organisation about whether vessels weighing more than 150 tonnes should carry their own oil spill response plan. Will he give us the Government's views on that proposal, which Opposition Members believe could limit appalling environmental damage and the economic threat to the all-important tourist area of Devon?

Mr. McLoughlin

Let me repeat that an accident investigation is in progress, and of course its report will be published, as is normal with marine accident investigation reports. Its initial finding is that, under international collision regulations, it was the duty of the fishing vessel to give way. However, the watchkeeper did not see the tanker and therefore did not alter his course. The tanker took evasive action, but could not prevent the collision. Visibility was three to four miles. I hope that the report will be completed as soon as possible. I have already given its interim findings. The quick action of the master of the Rosebay prevented what could have been a much more serious accident, given the amount of oil on the ship.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) referred to double skins. I accept that that is an important matter, and it is being investigated by the IMO. However, it would be no good trying to apply such a requirement unilaterally. The IMO is conducting a detailed review of technical standards and the procedures that apply to tankers. Double skins may not be the only answer; I have been advised that there are serious problems with gas build-ups.