UK shipping lanes still vulnerable to disaster

Ten years after oil tanker the Sea Empress ran aground off Wales, sparking one of the worst spills in history, WWF has released a report highlighting unnecessary risks being taken off the coast of Britain.

The report, An overview of shipping activities in UK waters, argues a similar disaster could easily happen today and while lessons were learned from the incident a decade ago some of them have not been put into practice.

Its key call is for an emergency towing vessel to cover the Irish Sea, a proposal recommended by the investigation into the Sea Empress incident but never implemented.

The report also points out that while the threats to the marine environment are quickly changing, policy and planning to protect them are not.

“Three of the world’s worst oil tanker spills happened in UK waters. The ingredients are still present around our coast for another oil tanker incident,” said Alison Champion, WWF marine policy officer.

“There are over 300 pollution reports each year that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency deal with. One of the latest being the sinking of the chemical tanker, the Ece, earlier this year (see related story).

“Significant efforts have been made since the Sea Empress grounding to prevent another disaster but we can’t be complacent. The UK needs to regularly assess new threats and create contingency plans. This report highlights the gap between the threats and the protection our marine environment needs.”

Shipping lanes around the UK are busier than ever with increased traffic which, argues WWF, shorten the odds in the game of chance where losing can mean an environmentally costly accident.

There is an increase in highly persistent and polluting cargoes and growing export of Russian heavy crude oil has again increased the traffic transiting through UK waters.

The charity is also concerned about the dangers of ship-to-ship oil transfer as giant tankers in British waters have their oil cargo topped up by a series of smaller ships.

There are always inherent risks in ship to ship transfers such as ships dragging anchor, pipe separation between vessels or a collision.

Concerns have been raised about the pollution risks associated with this practice and a lack of regulatory controls within UK waters.

It has now been banned in Lyme Bay but occurs off Southwold in Suffolk and at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands.

“There are currently no regulations regarding ship to ship transfers in UK waters,” said Ms Champion.

“There is an urgent need for this legislation to be passed through parliament without further delay. In addition the Government must make it clear how shipping fits into the Marine Bill currently being drafted.”

By Sam Bond

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