HL Deb 17 November 1997 vol 583 cc427-32

7.31 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order before the House today seeks approval for an order made under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to prohibit fishing for all species of fish and shellfish in a designated area in the North Sea outwith the Moray Firth.

The decision to make the order was based on the results of analysis carried out by our scientists at the marine laboratory in Aberdeen. These test results confirmed the presence of petrogenic taint and oil contamination in samples of nephrops taken from within the designated area. The shellfish samples were taken from that area in mid-September following a spill of crude oil in late August in the Texaco Captain oilfield. The purpose of the order was to prevent contaminated fish from reaching the market.

Oil from the Captain field is held in a floating production, storage and offloading facility (FPSO) and then transhipped by dedicated shuttle tanker. The incident which led to the making of the order we are debating today stems from the collision of the shuttle tanker with the FPSO. Although there was damage to both vessels no oil was spilled. The incident required a shut-down for two weeks to allow essential repairs. During that period Texaco carried out a maintenance programme on the FPSO. Production resumed just before midnight on 24th August. Only at daybreak, however, was it discovered that oil was being discharged into the sea.

Approved dispersants were used almost immediately from the stand-by vessel as the slick moved slowly westwards and later in the day from specialist aircraft chartered by the marine pollution control unit. Texaco reported that a slick of only seven tonnes remained on the surface of the sea at dusk on 25th August.

The company's initial estimate of the spill was 150 tonnes. However, this was revised downwards successively to 100 tonnes. Normally, this size of oil-spill would not trigger post-spill monitoring. Recent experience from a number of spills shows that dispersant use will disperse oil into the top few metres of the water column. Sampling experience, backed up by research undertaken by the marine pollution control unit, confirms that the deeper one goes, the less the concentration of oil in water becomes. Therefore the long-term effects on the underlying sediment and the marine life that it supports should be minimal.

The spill, however, had been greater than initially estimated, and on 3rd September Texaco announced in a press release that it was 685 tonnes and that the company was commissioning post-spill monitoring programmes of seabed sediment and fish and shellfish. Texaco arranged for the sampling of sediment from a number of points across the whole area affected by the spill. The sediment samples were sent to an independent laboratory for analysis. In addition, three trawls of roundfish and shellfish samples were also taken from different locations under the suspected area of impact of the spilt oil. The fish and shellfish samples were sent to the marine laboratory for analysis.

The results from the sediment analysis found elevated hydrocarbon levels of sediment up to five times the background levels which occur naturally.

Analysis of the fish samples involves a two-stage process. First, a trained panel of individuals taste batches to detect taint. Thereafter, gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy chemical analysis is carried out to establish the level of contamination for comparison with reference levels which occur naturally. Such analysis detected taint in shellfish from one trawl; and three of four aggregate samples of shellfish from this trawl were subsequently found to be contaminated with hydrocarbons of petrogenic origin. The tainted sample was found to be the most contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels 45 times higher than a reference sample.

Your Lordships will appreciate that the whole process is time-consuming as it is important to base results on the most rigorous analysis possible. The shellfish samples were the first to be analysed, those being the most likely to have been adversely affected. Roundfish such as cod or haddock would have swum out of the area.

It is on the basis of these results that the order was brought into force on Tuesday, 21st October. With advice from our scientists, the exclusion zone was set up to cover the whole area affected by the spill and the wide range of species normally fished within that area. This action was taken to avoid unnecessary risks even though contaminated shellfish had come from just one zone within that area.

The scientific and medical advice indicates that the consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish will not have posed any significant risks to human health. It is unlikely that an individual would have consumed large quantities of any species from the affected area before the ban was introduced. Nevertheless, high contamination levels from samples meant that the safest course of action was to eliminate any doubt by imposing a total fishing ban. This course of action is consistent with measures to reduce the exposure of the public to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known to be carcinogenic.

In setting up these arrangements we were well aware of the impact they would have on the fishing industry. However, public health must come first and this is recognised and accepted by the fishermen. They are well aware of the potentially damaging effect on the reputation of fish landed in Scotland if the action taken in the face of evidence of contamination and potential adverse effects on public health was not seen to be appropriate. Public confidence has to be maintained in the wholesomeness and safety of fish sold. Any threat to that would spell long-term difficulties for the industry.

During the debate on the emergency order on 5th November in another place, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office, explained that there was a possibility that the oil spilled in late August was the likely source of the problem, although it was unlikely ever to be proved absolutely. Indeed, further test results, which have since become available, indicate that the oil contamination does not contain the identifying markers which relate to Captain crude oil and probably results from previous industrial activity, tanker discharge or river run-off. Irrespective of the origin of the oil, however, the order will remain for as long as the scientific evidence shows that fish are contaminated.

Our scientists have in fact now advised that roundfish taken from within the exclusion zone have been tested and are not contaminated and that they are free from taint. I am pleased to say that on the basis of that advice and the recent test results, restrictions were lifted on Friday 14th November for all species of roundfish such as haddock and cod. That action was effected by the making of a partial revocation order under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

Restrictions must remain in place for flatfish and shellfish until results of analysis show that these species are unaffected or are no longer affected. Where that is the case the ban will be lifted progressively for those other species when test results, scientific and medical advice indicate that it is safe to do so.

We are, of course, continuing to monitor the position closely and further sampling has been instigated. When the order was made, a second batch of fish, shellfish and sediment samples were taken for analysis from within and outwith the exclusion zone for the purpose of comparison. The test results from that second round of sampling will be available at the end of November. More samples will be collected later this week and results from this latest batch are expected at the end of the year. The outcome of results from these further sampling programmes will determine whether additional monitoring will be required.

I must emphasise that our aim in making the order is to protect public health. I can assure the House that the ban will be lifted as soon as the evidence warrants it. I beg to move.

Moved, that the order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Sewel.)

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the order. I have no problem with the principle involved, although, as the Minister might agree, one or two odd and interesting questions arise from what he has just said. As I am sure the Minister appreciates, the order relates to quite a large area: 756 square kilometres. I am not entirely sure what that means in square miles. Perhaps the Minister will tell me when he replies.

The most intriguing point is that I had understood—and clearly the department had understood—at the beginning that the pollution found in the nephrops population on the sea-bed was the result of a Texaco oil spill. If I heard the Minister correctly, there are now considerable scientific doubts about that, since what scientists refer to as the markers did not lead back to the Texaco spill. That is the most worrying aspect of what the Minister told the House. When I read the order and received some background briefing from the fishing industry, it was my understanding that Texaco accepted that there had been an oil spill—although it seemed rather odd that the company kept going up and down the scale as to the size of the spill. On further analysis we then discover that the contamination does not appear to have resulted from that oil spill. It concerns me that the problem may be a good deal wider than the area that is excluded. I have no doubt that scientists are working on the source of the contamination.

I was pleased to hear that the restrictions on roundfish had been lifted. As the Minister rightly said and as I understood, no tainting was found in the roundfish samples taken in the area. As the Minister will know, the roundfish fishery in that area is not hugely important. The area is important as a nephrops fishery. Unfortunately, it so happens that it is important at about this time of year. Therefore, the restrictions impact greatly on nephrops fishing in the outer Moray Firth.

I wonder whether the Minister can help the fishermen and the Texaco Oil Company to come to a conclusion in regard to compensation. I imagine that Texaco is now saying, "If the markers in the samples that you have taken do not actually lead back to our oil spill, it is not us you should be talking to about compensation". That is a development that has taken place since I talked with representatives of the fishing industry at the end of last week when they were reasonably content that Texaco was taking seriously the matter of compensation. I can see that the Minister's remarks will change that.

I had intended to ask about continuing monitoring. However, the Minister stated that the results from the most recent monitoring are expected shortly, and that this week some additional monitoring will go on. I have no problem at all with that. The situation requires a considerable amount of monitoring. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me that the scientists will look very carefully at just exactly what they have found in the nephrops population.

We know from the "Braer" incident that it took some time before the effects of the oil began to diminish. I believe that there are some exclusion areas off the south of Shetland where fishing for shellfish is still not allowed. With that in the background, one is slightly worried about this area of the Moray Firth since it is significant for nephrops fishing.

I am not sure whether this is appropriate; however, I believe that the House will not mind my saying that during the "Braer" incident I was involved as chairman of the Sea Fish Industry Authority. We were all very impressed by the manner in which Mr. Malcolm Green, then chief executive of Shetland Islands Council, tackled the matter. All will be sad to hear of his very early death, as reported in the newspapers today. The "Braer" incident underlines the long life of oil pollution, especially in relation to shellfish. It does not seem as important for roundfish since, as the Minister said, they can swim out of the area. Shellfish do not have that ability to nearly the same extent and the effect of pollution on them can be considerable.

As the Minister will know, the nephrops fishery round the whole coast of Scotland is particularly important, especially for all the small communities where boats go out for just a day or two. I hope that this incident will be viewed very seriously, especially if it turns out that the pollution comes from sources other than the Texaco oil spill, because that could have consequences for others.

I am reassured by the Minister's remarks that the monitoring will be on a fairly continuous basis and that the nephrops fishery ban will be lifted as soon as it is safe to do so. I can certainly have no argument with that.

Lord Sewel

I thank the noble Lord for a measured and constructive contribution to the debate. I associate myself and these Benches with his remarks about the late chief executive of Shetland Islands Council, Mr. Malcolm Green.

I believe we both recognise that it is perplexing that the spill triggered the investigation, only for the results of the investigation to indicate that the contamination was not caused by the oil that was spilt but by some other factor. Clearly, the most careful examination is required, if at all possible to identify the source of that contamination. I understand that because it lacks the North Sea markers, and particularly the Captain crude markers, it is likely to have been of Middle East origin; however, that is only a likelihood at present. Whether it is the result of some earlier flushing of tanks, I am not in a position to say. The noble Lord is right to draw our attention specifically to that issue and to the fact that we need to resolve it.

I can rise to the noble Lord's challenge. The figure is 440 square miles.

The noble Lord also mentioned compensation. As he well knows, our approach is based on the principle that the polluter pays and it is traced back to the polluter. Until recently, Texaco was standing in that position. There will now have to be an attempt to identify the source of the oil that is causing the contamination. I suspect that it will be a difficult job. Nevertheless, our scientists will attempt to identify the source and make the information available.

The noble Lord asked what had been found in the nephrops population and the status of the contamination there. I can assure him that full results will be published, following tests from the three samples. It is a perplexing case, as I recognise. The Government have had to act on the basis of the precautionary principle to ensure that public health is safeguarded. I hope that that is recognised. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.51 to 8.30 p.m.]