Reinstating an Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) on the West Coast of Scotland is the only way to ensure marine safety, stressed Isles MPs during a heated debate at the House of Commons on Monday.
And Secretary of State for Transport, Mr Robert Goodwill MP, announced that he would extend the Government-funded ETV at Orkney until September and conceded that the time-scale for that ETV to get to an incident in the Western Isles and beyond would need to be addressed.
An adjournment debate, secured by Ian Blackford, MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and supported by Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus B MacNeil, called on the UK Government to scrap plans to remove the ETV in Orkney and reinstate the Stornoway vessel.
The ETV in Stornoway was removed in September 2011 as a cost-cutting exercise by the UK Government. The ETVs were put in place following the recommendations of Lord Donaldson following the Braer disaster in January 1993. Shipping movements and tonnages have greatly increased since the Braer, campaigners point out, saying the loss of the ETV will inevitably lead to an incident, which will result in devastating environmental impacts. The costs of any such incident will be significantly greater than any savings to be realised through the ETVs' withdrawal.
The post-Braer set-up involved four relatively large tugs sourced from the offshore oil sector on permanent stand-by at four strategic locations (Dover Strait, the Western Approaches, the Fair Isle Strait and The Minch). The aim was to avert a major merchant-shipping casualty and, in particular, a subsequent marine environmental pollution (oil and/or other hazardous substances) within the UK's Pollution Control Zone.
Speaking during the debate, Mr MacNeil said it was absolutely vital to have ETVs to protect the West Coast in the event of an incident like the Braer disaster in Shetland.
He said: “The UK Government are playing fast and loose because of an event that might happen once in 25 years, once in 50 years or once in 100 years. They have no insurance policy because they are a penny-wise pound-foolish Government who are playing fast and loose with the Scottish Coastline.”
In response to Mr Goodwill’s comments that it was not appropriate for the UK Government to fund tug provision where it could be provided by the private sector, Mr MacNeil pointed out that this was not available on the West Coast.
He added that at the time of the debate, according to a Marine Traffic app, an 11,000 tonne oil and chemical tanker was currently steaming up the Minch, between South Uist and Skye and that due to the lack of an ETV, there was no insurance policy for that vessel.
The Secretary of State said he was working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to come up with a cost effective long term strategy. He said he would make a final decision on the future funding of ETVs in September.
Mr MacNeil said: “The Government are making a u-turn (extension of funds for Orkney ETV) but I hope they carry on steaming further south and think of the Hebrides and the west coast too.”
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has also welcomed the announcement that the contract for the Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) based in Orkney is to be extended for six months.
However the Comhairle has repeated calls for a second ETV to cover the north west coast of Scotland. Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell said: “Clearly the Government recognises that there is an issue of safety and a risk to the environment and it is to be welcomed that they are extending the current contract which for the ETV based in the Northern isles.
"However the Minister has also recognised that there is an issue in the sailing time needed to reach the waters around the Western Isles which needs to be addressed. The provision of a second ETV would address that issue”.
The three island Council Leaders raised the issue with Scottish Government Transport Minister Derek Mackay at a meeting in Shetland. Mr Campbell said: “The Transport Minister is fully supportive of the Islands’ Councils’ case that the UK Government should restore the second ETV to help protect the environment and increase the safety of maritime users in Scottish waters."