New challenge to UK Government over Marine Bill –

New challenge to UK Government over Marine Bill Published:  27 February, 2007

THE UK Government has been challenged to include restrictions on dangerous cargoes in coastal waters and the designation of safe havens for ships in trouble, in the Marine Bill White Paper which will be published early in March.

Highland and Western Isles Councils revealed last month that they had achieved a breakthrough with the introduction by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of a vessel identification and reporting system, as well as recommended north-south lanes through the waters of the Minch. They have now called on the Government to fill in the remaining gaps, and bring in the safeguards required to protect one of the most-environmentally sensitive stretches of water in Europe.

Highland Council convener Michael Foxley said that the tracking system was an important advance, after years of lobbying, but he said more was required. The Council has expressed concern that the Government has failed to identify places of refuge where stricken ships can be towed to minimise pollution. This followed the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain. The ship got into difficulty in November 2002, but the French and Spanish authorities refused to let it into port. It was left out at sea under tow until it broke in half and sank causing serious coastal pollution in Galicia.

Councillor Foxley said: “The fiasco surrounding the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige made it very plain that places of refuge must be identified. The two Councils have agreed that within the loch systems of the Western Isles and the west Highland coast, we must identify at least the places which cannot definitely be used as places of refuge because of their economic or environmental importance. That would, by default, suggest areas that could be used in an emergency. But that would imply that the Government must put a compensation package in place for the communities that would be affected. That is absolutely vital.”

Councillor Foxley said that if the Government’s Marine Bill was to have any credibility, it must address the issues surrounding dangerous cargoes in coastal waters. He said that the potential for long-last environmental damage made this a fundamental issue. He added: “There is no point in discussing this long after the event happens. It would be catastrophic if an oil tanker was brought into a place of refuge, leaking oil and other substances, and we have to ensure that the communities that depend on the sea loch for their livelihoods have a guaranteed compensation package in place. Any such incident will affect fishing, fish farming, tourism or the environmental designation of such areas, for a very long time. We need to know well in advance what the compensation will be for the loss of habitat and economic earning potential and what the restitution required will be.”

Councillor Bill Fulton, who is leaving the Council in May, said that he hoped the Marine Bill would give some signs of addressing an issue on which he had campaigned now for over 20 years. “We have had a dialogue of the deaf mostly with two different Governments, UK and Scottish, and two or three different political parties in power, depending on how you look at the Executive coalition. This is a chance for the UK to put its own house in order. If that doesn’t happen, it will be forced on us by Europe. The European Commission is currently consulting on its Marine Policy and the Commissioner Joe Borg is taking the views of coastal communities very seriously. I can foresee that two or three years down the line, the UK will have to put restrictions and places of refuge in place, whether it likes it or not. It would be a pity if we had to acknowledge that foreign politicians are more concerned about our coastal waters than our own politicians have proved to be so far,” he said.

Councillor Foxley said that they would also be lobbying strongly to exclude large vessels with dangerous cargoes from the Minch completely. He said: “The coastguard tug will now start to act formally to shadow vessels with hazardous cargoes going through the Minches so that it is nearby if the vessels develop problems. But we have been asking for a deep water route west of St Kilda for the past 20 years, and although we were told 18 months ago that survey work would be undertaken to designate a route, the work hasn’t been done. That needs to be done urgently, to ensure that any hazardous cargoes are kept well to the west of the Western Isles. It is a false argument to say that they would be exposed to extreme weather that far out. If they are carrying cargoes all over the world, they should be in a condition to go west of St Kilda.”