A leaked report prepared for the UK government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) warns that four tugs are needed to prevent “catastrophic” spillages of oil, toxic chemicals or radioactive waste from accidents at sea.
Yet UK ministers have decided to cancel the £12-million-a-year contract for the tugs from September in order to save money. Alongside plans to close coastguard stations and withdraw Nimrod rescue aircraft, this has provoked a storm of protest from the Scottish government and local authorities.
Withdrawing funding for the tugs was “reckless and wrong-headed”, according to the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, Richard Lochhead MSP. “It has potentially serious consequences for human and environmental safety,” he said.
“Recent incidents have underlined the vital role that these emergency tugs play in some of the most dangerous and sensitive areas of our coastline, and we continue to press UK ministers to reconsider their decision.”
The tugs have helped avert a series of disasters in the last few years, and one of them famously rescued the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine, HMS Astute, after it grounded near the Isle of Skye last October (see below). Around the UK they have prevented up to 35,800 tonnes of oil pollution from 48 shipping incidents since 2005, according to an MCA analysis.
Four “emergency towing vessels” are currently stationed at Lerwick in Shetland, Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Dover in Kent and Falmouth in Cornwall. They were introduced after the Braer oil spill in Shetland in 1993, and are used up to 70 times a year.
But last October the Department for Transport in London announced that, as a result of the government’s spending review, it was going to stop paying for the tugs. “The government believes state provision of emergency towing vessels does not represent a correct use of taxpayers’ money,” it said.
But this decision ignored the clear advice from experts in an internal MCA report that has been passed to the Sunday Herald. “The current strategy of four vessels is correct”, concluded the report, saying that this was “to all intents and purposes an obligation for a country such as the UK.”
The report is entitled “Emergency Towing Vessels: An Assessment of Requirements”, and was completed in November 2008. It pointed out that that the four tugs played a crucial role in preventing minor accidents from becoming major catastrophes.
The tugs more than paid for themselves because of the huge clean-up costs they saved, the report argued. It pointed out that the cost of the Prestige oil spill off Spain in 2002 was "in the order of £650 million and rising".
It said: “In cost benefit terms, averting one major shipping disaster and environmental incident on the scale of the Prestige would justify a contract price far in excess of that currently being paid until its expiry in 2011 and beyond.”
The report also pointed out that due to “market failure” suitable tugs were not available in the commercial sector. That’s why other countries like Denmark, Germany, Spain, and Australia provided them, it said.
UK ministers were accused of ignoring their own advice by KIMO, a coalition of 120 coastal local authorities across Europe. “These tugs are needed and their presence could prevent serious environmental incidents and loss of life in the future,” said KIMO’s UK chair, Councillor Norman MacDonald.
The shipping minister in Westminster, Mike Penning MP, said he understood the concern felt by coastal communities. "But if we are to tackle the deficit then difficult decisions must be made,” he said.
“The reality is that since their introduction in the 1990s, these tugs have attended very few incidents. Should a ship get into difficulty, we are confident the commercial salvage sector are prepared to offer sufficient assistance."
Six disasters averted
November 2010: the emergency tug, Anglian Prince rescued the 1300-tonne cargo ship, Red Duchess, after she lost power in a force seven gale near Rum, preventing a serious accident.
October 2010: the Anglian Prince pulled the nuclear submarine, HMS Astute, off a shingle bank near Skye, preventing a radioactive leak.
July 2010: the emergency tug, Anglian Sovereign, helped douse a four-day fire on the bulk carrier, Yeoman Bontrup, which broke out while it was unloading at the Glensanda superquarry in Morvern.
March 2010: The Anglian Sovereign towed the Wilson Dover to safety after it was disabled during a storm north east of Cape Wrath, preventing the loss of its cargo of fertiliser.
October 2008: The Anglian Prince towed the Russian cargo ship, Mekhanik Semakov, to safety after it started drifting near Skye, preventing up to 110 million tonnes of oil pollution.
March 2008: The Anglian Sovereign towed the Atlantic Trader to safety after it lost power in storm force conditions west of Hoy, saving the 24-person crew and preventing up to 350 million tonnes of oil pollution.
The executive summary of the leaked report on emergency towing vessels can be downloaded here (2.6MB pdf).