HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc33-40 4.17 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the continuing operation to salvage the oil tanker Sea Empress.

At 8 pm on Thursday 15 February 1996, the Sea Empress ran aground at the entrance to Milford Haven on her passage inward to port. She began to spill oil shortly afterwards. The vessel, built in 1993, is Liberian flagged and managed by a British company. At the time of the incident, she was carrying about 131,000 tonnes of light crude oil. As a result of the initial grounding, about 2,000 tonnes of crude oil were spilt. That formed an oil slick, causing pollution along a stretch of coastline near the entrance to and in Milford Haven.

The Marine Pollution Control Unit, part of the Coastguard Agency in the Department of Transport, quickly implemented the agreed national contingency plan for oil spill response. A joint response centre was established with Dyfed county council and other interested parties, including environmental groups. The shipowner quickly reached agreement with a salvage company to undertake the necessary salvage operations.

The immediate problem was that the vessel had listed and was too deep in the water to be brought into the shelter of Milford Haven for the removal of the crude oil remaining on board. Therefore, attention was concentrated on stabilising the vessel as a prelude to salvage and on preventing a further escape of oil.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I visited the site on Friday, and my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping inspected salvage and recovery operations by helicopter on Saturday 17 February. On Saturday evening, in worsening weather, the vessel broke loose from salvage tugs and grounded outside the main channel into the haven.

The current position is that the Sea Empress continues to be held by two tugs in the entrance to Milford Haven. Salvors are back on board undertaking preparatory work to allow for a transfer of oil to a smaller tanker. Throughout this morning, oil leaked from the vessel, much more slowly than yesterday, but at low water she appeared to touch bottom and a quantity of oil escaped from the starboard side tanks as the sea level dropped. The oil was quickly sprayed with dispersant by MPCU aircraft. Undoubtedly, most of the Sea Empress's cargo is still on board. The prevention of further pollution depends crucially on the success of the salvage operations.

Beach-cleaning operations are continuing at three main sites and more than 150 people are involved. Within the Haven, two booms have been rigged to protect sensitive sites and more will be put out today if conditions permit. Three small specialist craft are recovering oil from the sea surface in the Haven.

During the incident, oil was sprayed with dispersant from aircraft under conditions agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

It is too soon to assess the likely impact of the pollution caused by the incident, but the House will appreciate the great environmental sensitivity of the area. The coastline falls within the Pembrokeshire coast national park, reflecting its great natural beauty. The area is of importance to wildlife, particularly birds. Accordingly, the local authorities, the Countryside Council for Wales and other environmental and welfare interests such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are playing their full part at the joint response centre. Every action is being taken to help protect those areas and the wildlife from contamination.

There is a system in place under international treaty to provide compensation in such incidents—first, from the shipowner's insurer and secondly, if that is not sufficient, from the international oil pollution compensation fund. The independent marine accident investigation branch, which will report directly to me, has initiated an investigation into the causes of the accident and will provide a full report. As usual, that report will be published. At this stage, it would be unwise to speculate on the outcome of the investigation.

The Government's policy is first and foremost to seek to prevent incidents of this type through improvements in vessel safety. In that context, we are implementing the vast majority of the recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas". However, carriage by sea will always have some element of risk. Where an incident does occur, we are determined to react swiftly, thus effectively to reduce the pollution or damage caused.

In this instance, despite severe weather, the practised implementation of our national contingency plan should ensure that the situation will be brought under control. The House will recognise that the weather will remain the crucial factor in making progress. The immediate priority is to anchor the ship in position, so that we do not have to continue to rely on tugs alone. When the weather abates, we shall start to lighten the vessel, so that she can be moved to a less-exposed anchorage. The operation will take time and needs to be done carefully and safely. Every effort will be made to prevent any further release of oil.

I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the extremely hard work put in by all who have helped to mitigate the effects of this regrettable incident. Work will continue to be done to stabilise the vessel, minimise further release of oil and deal with oil that has come ashore. The House will recognise the hazardous nature of that work in an exposed location, and it will wish to pay particular tribute to those who have returned to the ship as part of the salvage operation. We wish them every success in a satisfactory conclusion to a distressing incident.

Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I join the Secretary of State and the rest of the House in sending our best wishes to the salvage team working on the Sea Empress, with our hopes that it manages to transfer enough oil from the vessel to allow her to be refloated and moved without a major accident or large-scale oil leak, which would do terrible damage to the beauty of the Pembrokeshire coastline and the wildlife in the surrounding sea.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is most disappointing—following the 1993 Braer disaster, the fine work undertaken by Lord Donaldson's inquiry and the acceptance of most of his recommendations—that we should continue to suffer the danger of major spillages from oil tankers in areas of great natural beauty? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that—as Lloyd's List International claimed on Saturday 17 February—the Sea Empress is the 12th tanker to have grounded in United Kingdom waters since early 1993? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of suspicions in the industry that masters have failed to disclose a number of other incidents in which damage was avoided?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is increasing concern that Milford Haven has become accident prone, that this is the second reported incident in the estuary in the past four months and that—again according to Lloyd's List International—there are fears that other close shaves at Milford Haven have been covered up? In those circumstances, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the port authority's inquiry into Milford Haven should be extended, to establish whether commercial considerations are outweighing safety and environmental considerations?

Does the Secretary of State accept that there are four possible causes of the Sea Empress disaster—pilot error, engine or steering problems, and crew error? Given that the Sea Empress is only three years old and was involved in an incident in Sullom Voe in 1994, is the Minister aware that many suspect that the problem with that vessel and other cheap designs lies in the lack of engine power and back-up for the steering system? May I suggest that it is essential that those matters are properly and independently investigated? Will he give urgent consideration to excluding all ships without adequate design protection against spillages—either double hulling or mid-deck design—from all environmentally sensitive waters?

Given the importance of the issue, will the Secretary of State reconsider his decision today? An internal inquiry by his own marine accident investigation branch is inadequate, given the serious questions that have been raised. Will he instead recall Lord Donaldson and ask him to review the problems that remain following the implementation of the previous report?

Last but not least, will the Secretary of State admit that, as the Merchant Navy officers union said, the Government have allowed increasing amounts of sub-standard flag of convenience shipping to take trade from Britain while presiding over the demise of the British fleet."? Will he immediately set up a commission—and chair it himself—with the remit to rebuild a strong British fleet with high standards of safety and respect for the protection of the environment?

Sir George Young

I am grateful for the comments that the hon. Lady made at the beginning of her remarks, and I endorse them. The Donaldson report made 103 recommendations. The Government accepted 86 and 13 are under further consideration. Half of those that we accepted have been implemented, so we have made good progress in taking forward the wide-ranging report that Lord Donaldson initiated. The hon. Lady suggested that unreported incidents have taken place, and I shall make inquires to see whether there is substance in that suggestion. As for her speculation as to the causes of the incident, it makes sense to await the outcome of the MAIB investigation. Although the MAIB reports to me, it is independent and its credibility and integrity are widely recognised in the marine world.

I was interested to read what Lord Donaldson said about double hulls and their merits in paragraph 23.14 of his report: We have some doubts on the merits of double hulls and consider that there is scope for discussion. We accept the line that IMO has taken in promoting double hulled tankers or equivalents but believe that there is a need for further research. One needs to be cautious about the suggestions in the press that it would make sense to exclude single-hulled vessels from the United Kingdom.

In regard to the hon. Lady's other suggestions, the priority of the House is to initiate an authoritative, speedy inquiry to find out what went wrong and then to take action on that. Some of the alternative suggestions, such as public inquiries, would inevitably take longer and might deny us the information that we need urgently if we are to get to the bottom of the matter.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am sure that all hon. Members will join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the speed, professionalism and efficiency of the emergency services, and we wish them well. As the Secretary of State clearly appreciates, oil tankers tend to operate in coastal waters that are peculiarly environmentally vulnerable and ecologically sensitive. Is it not time, therefore, for the right hon. Gentleman to consider what steps the United Kingdom can take to make progress on the issues on which he has just spoken?

It is some time since the Donaldson report examined the case for double hulls. Is there not a case for a British initiative on the issue, to prevent the use of vessels that are clearly not up to the required standards in our very vulnerable waters?

Sir George Young

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there is on-going work within the International Maritime Organisation on double hulls. The present position is that single-hulled ships have progressively to be phased out, the date varying according to particular countries, and double-hulled ships or those of equivalent safety introduced. That is the right way forward. Although at the end of the day the United Kingdom will retain the right to take unilateral action, I am sure that the House will agree that, where possible, it makes sense to make progress on an international basis, given the nature of the shipping trade.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

I, too, should like to send my best wishes to my constituents, many of whom are involved in the clean-up and the salvage operation. I have been closely involved since late on Thursday night, when the vessel first went aground.

I am grateful that the Secretary of State took the trouble to come down and look at the operation, but I must tell him that an MAIB investigation is far too restrictive. This is the second time in four months that a large crude carrier has run aground at the entrance to Milford Haven. The indications are that there were steering and—possibly—propulsion problems connected with both incidents. Both were modern vessels; had they been motor cars they would not even have qualified for MOTs yet.

I believe that there is something wrong with the minimum standards that have been set; only a public inquiry can deal with such wider issues. We also need to sort out, once and for all, the issues of double-hull and mid-deck design. I appreciate what Lord Donaldson said, but the point is that he did not argue in favour of single hulls.

The Secretary of State did not tell us that the IMO has recommended that it will be 25 to 30 years before all the single hulls have been phased out. That means that we will be about 80 before the last single hulls disappear. If the Secretary of State is willing to accept that, I am not.

I believe that there are sufficient grounds for a public inquiry, to examine some of the issues specifically related to Milford Haven. Everyone accepts that it is probably the most environmentally sensitive area in the United Kingdom, and professionals working at Milford Haven, or who have retired from it, have flagged up serious problems.

The right hon. Gentleman must ask the port authority how on earth a modern port can function without radar cover at its entrance. That cover has been out of action for about six months, which shows that something is seriously wrong with the whole operation at Milford Haven. I urge the Secretary of State to hold a public inquiry.

Sir George Young

If the hon. Gentleman's last point was a contributory factor to the incident, I would expect the MAIB to reflect on that while compiling its report. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman is reported as saying in The Guardian today—he said that he had no criticism to make of the salvage efforts. He speaks with feeling about a matter of deep concern to his constituency.

The MAIB inquiry will look at allegations about power and steering. I hope that the report on the earlier incident will be available shortly, when it will be published.

The hon. Gentleman pressed me again to hold a public inquiry. The MAIB is usually entrusted with the investigation of sea accidents, however serious. There has been no formal public inquiry into a major shipping accident since the formation of the MAIB in 1989. Indeed, there has been no formal public inquiry into an air accident since 1973. My view is that MAIB and air accident investigation branch procedures have so far commanded wide public acceptance.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

My constituents in north Pembrokeshire are worried about the environmental impact of this incident. I support the points made by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger).

It is inevitable that this crisis will also concentrate people's minds on the proposals to burn orimulsion at Pembroke power station. Is the Secretary of State aware of the great concern in the area about the effects of burning orimulsion? Does not this incident revive fears about the transportation of orimulsion into the Haven, especially as that will involve significantly increased quantities?

While pursuing the question of the public inquiry, will the right hon. Gentleman press his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to hold a public inquiry into the application to burn orimulsion, which is currently under consideration?

Sir George Young

The plans for an orimulsion jetty are being considered by a number of regulators, including the Department, and no decisions have yet been reached. There are a range of objections to the proposals, including concerns about new dangers to navigation in the Haven.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I represent an adjacent constituency, that of Carmarthen, and I well remember, when Milford Haven was developed, the serious concern throughout Dyfed that it was at the heart of the Pembrokeshire coast national park. Regular assurances were given that the highest standards would be imposed and maintained, and that was the case in the 1960s and 1970s. Can the Secretary of State explain to me and to the people of Wales why incidents now happen regularly? We have heard today about the incident four months ago and about the Braer incident in the Shetlands. Why is there now such a high accident rate in oil transportation?

Sir George Young

The objective of the two inquiries, into the earlier incident involving the Borga and into the Sea Empress, is to find out why there are incidents and to take appropriate action. My Department's priority is to prevent such incidents taking place, and that is why we set up the MAIB inquiries, which are published, and take urgent action to implement them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

If the Secretary of State wishes to demonstrate good will, he should take some vigorous action on those ships, which are now plying British waters, that are not suitable. However good the MAIB investigation of the Sea Empress accident is, if the Secretary of State will not take immediate action against sub-standard, non-British ships carrying oil in British waters, that is a dereliction of his duty and everyone's time is being wasted. It is vital that the evidence on double hulls, given to the Select Committee, is studied by the Secretary of State now and that he follows up the evidence and the conclusions of Lord Donaldson as quickly as possible.

Sir George Young

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the Government take tough action against sub-standard vessels. We published lists of vessels that had been detained following Lord Donaldson's report. Safety at sea is a matter that I take very seriously. I am anxious to make progress as fast as possible on the Donaldson report and related recommendations.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does not the Secretary of State realise the sense of horror and outrage felt by everyone, at the risk that we permit that billion-dollar industry—the richest, most profitable industry in the world—to run? We allow that industry to cut costs with ramshackle vessels at the expense of the British environment and wildlife. For too long, we have been permissive with the entire maritime industry. Why do we not follow what happened in America after the Exxon Valdez disaster? Action was taken to ensure that the polluter pays more, and that discourages vessels that are sub-standard from visiting America. Is not that the way forward? New standards must be introduced and they must be imposed first on areas such as Milford Haven, which are in special peril.

Sir George Young

It is the case that the polluter pays. The shipping industry pays the premiums for the insurance policies that are validated to pay for the damage caused.

With regard to the quality of vessels, the Sea Empress was built in 1993 and it is important not to prejudge the outcome of the MAIB report. I read the Donaldson report again at the weekend, and Lord Donaldson pointed out that 80 per cent. of accidents are due to human error.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I found the Secretary of State's reply very complacent, and his attitude to the accident is thoroughly unsatisfactory, especially in view of what we should have learnt from the Braer incident. The accident involved a ramshackle ship, crewed by Russians and flagged out to Liberia, and we have to rely on a Chinese tug to assist us. What is going on in this country's maritime industry?

The area around Milford Haven is one of the most important sites of scientific interest in the entire world. We should not allow anything other than reinforced, double-hulled ships to go near that area. To allow an oil company to cut corners is absolutely appalling and the Government must take full measures to ensure that the polluter pays for every single expense that is incurred by those who are trying to clear up after the tragedy. Was the captain of the ship tested after it grounded? Will the RSPB and the RSPCA be given financial support for their clear-up? How many birds have been affected? Will the Secretary of State take some direct action instead of being stunningly complacent?

Sir George Young

According to the last figure that I saw, six birds have been killed, but, of course, we must do all that we can to minimise any damage. The insurance company acting for the Sea Empress will compensate for the costs borne by the Government, local authorities or others involved in the clearing-up operation. As for double hulls, the hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said in response to two earlier questions.

As for complacency, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that after the Braer incident, we set up the Donaldson inquiry. The subsequent report made 103 recommendations, 86 of which were accepted. Half were implemented, and the rest are being pursued. I hope that the fact that my Department gave the House a statement outlining the action that we were taking, and the responses that I have outlined, will convince the hon. Gentleman that we are not complacent. We take the matter seriously, and we are determined to learn the lessons and then implement the recommendations.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

One of the lessons that the Secretary of State may wish to learn is that the arrangements are policed by the Coastguard and Marine Safety Agencies. Will he now undertake not to cut further the numbers in those agencies, so that the arrangements are patrolled and enforced effectively? Will he also undertake to ensure that the penalties for those who damage the environment—a maximum fine of £250,000, but no minimum—are enforced ruthlessly? At present, many shipowners are bearing the penalties as a cost of doing business. The right hon. Gentleman needs to get tough, so that we do not see any more such incidents.

Sir George Young

Safety is and will remain paramount in my Department. Efficiency savings in the two marine agencies and, indeed, in the MAIB, have not and will not be made at the expense of safety.

  1. Scott Report 189 words
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