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Marine / Council hopeful of quick resolution to issue of tankers parking near coast

The fully laden Hovden Spirit had been lying a few miles off Shetland's coastline for a number of weeks earlier this year. Photo: John Waters for Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) is hopeful that the practice of oil-laden tankers loitering off the coast after leaving Sullom Voe Terminal will be resolved in the near future, a meeting of the local authority’s harbour board heard on Wednesday.

Infrastructure director John Smith said the best way forward to ultimately solve the issue is a “collaborative” approach involving the industry.

He said the council has previously made direct contact at “varying levels” regarding vessels lying close to shore south of Lerwick in what is a deemed a precautionary area.

“I think we are expecting this to be resolved satisfactorily quite quickly,” Smith added.

The meeting heard that SIC convener Malcolm Bell, who chairs the Sullom Voe Association, has been leading talks with the industry.

“We are already speaking to the people that we need to be speaking to,” he said.

“There’s no quick fix that the council can apply, I believe.”

Bell said there was a hope that the issue would be resolved before the next meeting of the Sullom Voe Association, which brings together councillors and the oil sector, in mid-March.

The issue relates to oil tankers leaving Sullom Voe Terminal full of oil – hundreds of thousands of barrels – and hanging around off the coast south of Lerwick for lengthy periods of time.

The full tanker Hovden Spirit is currently lying east of Fladdabister having left Sullom Voe last month.

Smith said the council has tracked four instances of this in the last few months and described it as a “concern to the council and the community”.

The SIC wants this to stop, he said.

It has led to concern in the community over the potential environmental risk should a laden tanker falter.

The seafood sector also voiced worry earlier this week, calling on the council to take immediate action.

The meeting heard that for 40 years the practice of full tankers pausing on their journey after leaving Sullom Voe in this area did not happen as there as an agreement in place.

Shetland North councillor Andrea Manson.

Board chairman Andrea Manson suggested the reason for the change was a “consequence of Covid”.

“There’s not the demand in the oil markets for the oil.”

She said that it was likely the case that tankers were parked off Shetland with unsold oil, or were holding off until their destination had more storage for oil.

Manson clarified that no maritime laws were being broken, although it was obviously not a desirable practice.

Guidance states that in precautionary areas, at south of Lerwick and to the north west of Shetland, mariners should “take care”. They exist for the purpose of a “ship’s routing” on the approach to harbours in Lerwick and Sullom Voe.

The local authority has been criticised by some for not doing more to resolve the issue.

Manson said, however, that “we are not sitting on our hands here”.

“There’s an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes.”

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison looked for clarity on what powers was available to the council on the issue.

Smith said the tools that the council has as are “all that we can assemble, and we will deploy those as actively as we can” – but collaboration is the most effective approach.

“The reinstatement of previously satisfactorily activity by laden tankers coming out of Sullom Voe is the outcome that we’re pursuing along with our partners.”

The council’s governance and law manager Jan Riise also told the meeting that the power of conservancy in the Zetland County Council Act 1974 does not give the local authority the “power to control shipping through the coastal waters of Shetland”.

Lerwick member Stephen Leask, meanwhile, also raised concern about the general environmental impact of vessels loitering around Shetland, including for instance effluent going into the sea.

Speaking about the issue of tankers parking off the cost, he said he felt the council should put pressure on the vessel owners, the industry and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency “for their responsibility for the concerns of the environment”.

“By doing so the buck will stop with them, and not with us.”

Following discussion of the matter the harbour board agreed to ask council officers to seek an early resolution to the issue.