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Government slammed for Sullom tug proposal

The harbour's two new tugs Bonxie and Solan, delivered earlier this year.

LOCAL politicians, maritime professionals and environmentalists in Shetland have dismissed suggestions by the UK government that tugs based at the oil port of Sullom Voe could step in to provide emergency towing cover once the emergency towing vessel has been withdrawn from the northern isles on 30 September.

The idea, although not new, has now been confirmed as the government’s solution to provide emergency cover for the treacherous waters of the northern isles as of next month.

In comparision: The emergency towing vessel Anglian Sovereign at Blacksness Pier, in Scalloway - Photo: Shetland News

In a response to the transport select committee, published on Friday, the department of transport said: “The government is satisfied that there is sufficient commercial tug capacity to provide an acceptable response to disabled vessels that break down in the vicinity of the Dover Strait and the South-West approaches.

“The waters off the Shetland and Orkney Islands can be reached within reasonable time by tugs that operate at Sullom Voe or by vessels that service the offshore industry to the west of the Shetland Isles.”

There had been some hope that a reprieve for the ETVs for at least six months could be achieved with the help of isles’ MP Alistair Carmichael’s influence on the government, but that appears now not to be the case.

Mr Carmichael was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Meanwhile, Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness has slammed the idea that the council’s tugs could provide emergency cover as a “non-starter”.

“The government seems to be missing the point that our tugs are not ocean going vessels.  Although there’s no question that our tugs would help a vessel in distress, the fundamental issue here is that they are not equipped to cope with the range of shipping that we have passing through Shetland’s waters.

“It is essential that we have a ship of the size and capability of the Anglian Sovereign available if we are to save the islands from another Braer disaster.

“The UK government needs to realise that we are in a very vulnerable position with all the shipping that uses  the seaways around Shetland. 

“We continue to call on this coalition government to extend the existing contract until a safe alternative can be found – the protection of these islands is its responsibility. 

“Most ministers won’t be aware of the impact a tanker grounding can have, but unfortunately, as Shetlanders, we have firsthand experience.”

Sullom Voe harbour master Capt Roger Moore added that the idea was unrealistic for technical but also for operational reasons.

“The tugs are designed for harbour work. They have responsibilities for ships to go in and out of the harbour and are alongside,” she said.

While the new tugs that have come into service at the port earlier this year have a bollard pull of 80 tons, ocean going salvage tugs are expected to have a bollard pull of between 150 and 200 tons.

Capt Moore said the harbour tugs were not equipped for salvage operations in the open sea, whereas dedicated salvage tugs were capable of coming to the rescue of anything from a fishing boat to a super tanker.

“There is no way that we could replace an ETV, and we have said that consistently over the last months. I am really surprised that the government has come back with this proposal,” he said.

He added that the ETV working group, the organisation formed to fight the government plans to remove the two Scotland based tugs, had told the government on several occasions that neither Sullom nor Orkney based tugs could replace the ETVs.

The local authority’s environmental pressure group KIMO said shipping minister Mike Penning had repeatedly been told that the decision to remove the ETVs was shortsighted.

Its UK chairman, councillor Len Scoullar said “The minister insisting that salvage provision is the responsibility of the shipping industry alone shows a distinct lack of understanding of the huge impacts pollution can have on communities and businesses.”

On Friday night, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott added his reaction. He said: “This government decision is wrong, dangerous and disgraceful.

“Shetland had the Braer disaster visited upon the Islands in 1993. A major international study was then done. Lord Donaldson’s seminal report recommended ocean going salvage tug cover for the seas around Shetland. Nothing has changed in 20 years that make this need any less.

“I am at a complete loss to understand why this decision has been taken. If the existing contract is so bad, renegotiate it. But do not leave Shetland coastal waters defenceless. That is completely unacceptable and the UK government must immediately change its position.”