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News / SIC: retaining emergency vessel is crucial

Northern Isles ETV Herakles. Photo courtesy of Alistair Carmichael's parliamentary office.

SIC LEADER Gary Robinson says recent incidents have demonstrated the importance of retaining the coastguard’s emergency towing vessel (ETV) to protect the waters around Shetland and Orkney.

The UK Government will review the ETV’s future, which Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael confirmed last month is now secure until March 2016, next year.

There was an outcry in the Northern Isles back in 2011 when the government announced it was removing ETV provision, with the intention of instead relying on commercial tugs operating in the area.

But in summer 2012 the Tory-Lib Dem coalition announced the Northern Isles tug – introduced in the wake of the Braer disaster in 1993 – would be retained.

Robinson said recent incidents showed the imperative for keeping the Orkney-based ETV on hand to support maritime activity around the Northern Isles.

“Earlier this month, a ship carrying radioactive concrete waste lost power in the Moray Firth, forcing the evacuation of the Beatrice platform,” he said.

“Last Sunday night, the ETV Herakles had to tow a stricken cargo boat into the safety of the Pentland Firth ahead of the stormy weather – and just a few days later, another ship, this time an oil industry cargo vessel, lost power off Fair Isle.”

Robinson continued: “The simple fact is that at any given time there are scores of ships around our shores supporting the oil and gas industry, fishing, or en route to other ports, and that number will only increase as the west of Shetland fields are developed.”

In March 2013 the UK government signed an agreement with the oil industry allowing for the standby vessel Grampian Frontier to be released during maritime emergencies in the waters north of Scotland.

That is aimed at providing support to the Herakles, which is now the only dedicated ETV patrolling UK waters, but Robinson said “what we need is a dedicated vessel on hand at all times”.

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“We have some of the most dangerous waters in the world on our doorstep, and when situations like these arise the most important thing is that help is nearby.”

The government-funded ETV had originally been due to remain in place until April next year. But Carmichael confirmed in September that the contract had been extended to March 2016.

The Northern Isles MP, who played a pivotal role in maintaining the ETV along with Shetland’s coastguard station, said its use in recent weeks served to “demonstrate the importance of having a resource of this sort and justify keeping it”.

“People in the Northern Isles could not have been clearer in their view that keeping emergency tug cover was essential to protect our coastline when the service was under threat in 2012,” he said.

“I took that message in government and pushed it relentlessly, and we were able to secure the immediate future of this vital emergency service.  The recent events vindicate that decision.”

The Scottish secretary added that he continued to discuss the situation “on a regular basis” with transport minister Patrick McLoughlin “who has himself seen the vessel in Orkney and understands the need”.

Western Isles politicians continue to call for a Stornoway-based ETV to be restored to cover the Minches, now reliant on the Herakles travelling from Orkney in the event of an emergency.

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