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The Highland Line: 20 years on, what lessons have we learned from the Braer disaster?

It is just a few weeks till the 20th anniversary of the sinking of the Braer. The Liberian-registered tanker was on its way from Norway to Canada when it lost power in violent storm force 11 winds.

The MV Braer ran aground off Shetland on 5 January 1993

She was carrying 85,000 tonnes of crude oil, twice as much crude oil as the Exxon Valdez which ran aground off Alaska four years earlier. The Braer was blown on to the rocks at the southern end of Shetland on January 5 1993.

The first reports at about 5.30am that morning were that it is was in no immediate danger. The crew members were taken off and then some were put back on with the master as the anchor handling vessel tried unsuccessfully to attach a heaving line.

She grounded just before 11.30, delivering the most serious blow ever to Shetland’s environment, although it is now recognised it could have been much worse.

The drama had unfolded over six hours, with Scotland looking on in impotent anguish. It was difficult not to recall these events this week when reading a report from Westminster’s select committee on transport, which returned to the issue of the provision of emergency tugs.

As a result of Lord Donaldson’s inquiry into the sinking, tugs or Emergency towing vessels (ETVs) were introduced in 1994 primarily to intercept disabled ships, bring them under control and tow them to safety.

There were four ETVs, one each in the Dover Straits, the south west approaches, the Minches and around Shetland. But the government moved to end the contracts by the end of last year 2011, before agreeing a short extension until March.

Then in June, following a robust campaign led by the local authorities in the Highlands and Islands, ministers agreed to reintroduce a single Government-funded ETV in Scottish waters until at least 2015 to be based primarily in Orkney and sometimes in Shetland. The government was also trying to get an agreement with UK Oil and Gas to provide a vessel (s) to supplement this state provision.

The transport committee, chaired by Liverpool Labour MP Louise Ellman, published a follow-up report looking at the arrangement this week, and its findings didn’t make for the most comfortable reading.

Arrangements were in place to provide ETV capability in the Dover Straits and the south west approaches, which according to the government were working well.

“However, it has so far proved impossible to find a commercial alternative to a state contracted ETV in Scottish waters. The MCA is letting an annual contract for a single ETV, based in the northern isles, covering the area previously covered by ETVs in the Minches and the Fair Isle Channel, for the duration of the spending review period (i.e. until 2015). The Minister confirmed that the Scotland Office was still searching for a commercial alternative.

“ETVs are a form of insurance policy against environmental disasters caused by merchant shipping. In the Dover Straits and the south west the Government has changed the way in which this protection is provided: the new, commercial arrangements are simply untested. In Scotland, the Government has halved the cover it provides, increasing the risk of pollution affecting the west coast in particular.

"In 2015 funding for the Government-backed ETV off the northern coast of Scotland runs out and there seems little prospect of a commercial alternative emerging at that stage. We recommend that the Government clarify by spring 2014 the ETV arrangements it will have in place in Scottish waters from 2015; and confirm whether or not it is in discussions with the Scottish Government to devolve ETV provision.

"We also recommend that the Government explain how an ETV stationed in the northern isles can effectively serve the west coast, including by providing estimates of journey times to points on the west coast in different sea and weather conditions."

The current leaders of the Highlands and Islands council called for guarantees now about post 2015. Meanwhile on hearing their call, the man who had led the councils’ campaign on tugs until this year’s elections, was left pondering anniversaries.
Dr Michael Foxley, former leader of the Highland Council, recalled sitting on his croft house on the shores of Loch Eil in December last year.

“There were force 12 winds at Mallaig. I was supposed to have been in Edinburgh for a meeting but couldn’t because of the weather. So I was having a telephone conference with Michael Moore (Secretary of State) amongst others about the tugs, when a large fishing boat broke its moorings and floated across the loch in front of me.  I remember thinking if that is happening on a sheltered sea loch, what on earth is happening at Ardnamurchan Point or the Butt of Lewis just now.”
He recalled that during the telephone conference Michael Moore had been talking about getting an oil and gas industry vessel involved.

“It was at that point that I asked for an arc of where these vessels operate, to work out where one could reasonably get to in a 12-18 hour period if there was an incident. We thought that it might make it to the south of Orkney but didn’t have a chance of getting to the Minches, never mind further south.

“We needed that information and were promised it within a month. A year on it still hasn’t been provided, and still there is no commercial contract with the oil and gas industry. I think it is a bit of a myth. So 20 years on from the Braer, the west coast of Scotland really is as exposed as ever it was to a major maritime pollution emergency, and there is going to be one. When it does happen, I will be more than happy to name all those in government who brushed our concerns aside.”

Wood from the trees

As the saying almost goes, one man’s vision is another man’s example of thinking born from living in an unimaginative rut.

Certainly there seemed to be a welcome locally for the news that Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) is investing £3 million into a new pier on Mull to transport greater quantities of timber off the island. Most people saw it as forward-thinking.

For example Colin Morrison, Chair of the enterprising North West Mull Community Woodland Company which is the trailblazer for forest crofts, said:

“Over the coming years we will transport many tens of thousands of tonnes of timber from the north west of Mull and the pier should help our business and others move timber more economically as well as enabling significant savings in road miles.”

But others see it differently, believing it to be another example of a lack of vision in Scotland over rural development.

Transport of timber off Mull is expensive. According to FCS the new pier will cut down on costs and save on at least 800,000 lorry miles each year as more timber is moved onto boats, thus relieving traffic on fragile mainland roads.

The pier, to be built at Fishnish near where the CalMac ferry runs to Lochaline on Morvern,  will also be open for other timber suppliers on the island to use therefore it is expected to open up new markets and boost timber values.

Preliminary work on the pier will start before Christmas and it is expected to be operational by late summer in 2013. Locally based company, TSL Contractors Ltd, will carry out the bulk of the work.

Announcing the new investment, Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse said:

“Mull has a tremendous timber resource to tap into but transport costs off the island are high and therefore a constraint to marketing the timber off the island.
“With a reduction of haulage costs and more sites being opened up for harvesting, we should see an increase in Mull’s timber value and a reduction of pressure on rural roads. The opening up of new markets and an increase in potential timber customers are all positive outcomes that the new pier will deliver for Mull.”

The pier is to be made available to other private and public timber suppliers and it can also be used as a facility to transport bulk goods.

An increasing supply of timber is becoming available on Mull as the forest matures. In the initial period, it is expected that around 50,000 tonnes of timber will be transported via the pier each year.

It is hoped that the pier will help stimulate increased harvesting activity which will also support the emerging woodfuel market on the island. At the same time, established mainland markets will be maintained, such as at Kilmallie and other sawmills, with high quality spruce sawlogs and the Iggesund carton board factory in Workington.

Moray Finch, General Manager, Mull and Iona Community Trust said:
“The Forestry Commission Scotland pier will be a massive boost to the economy of Mull, not just through the jobs involved in construction but also through the increased sustainability of forestry and any other operations which might make use of the pier in years to come.

“The investment by the Commission is a welcome endorsement of the efforts made by their staff on the island and also by North West Mull Community Woodland Company to make this happen.”

But land reform campaigner Andy Wightman had a very different perspective. “Whilst this may boost the timber harvesting business, it does nothing for the forestry economy and even less for the development of Mull’s economy," he said. "It is good news for the state forest service, for Mull’s mainly absentee investment forestry owners, and for the multinational companies which own the large sawmills in the south of Scotland and north of England. But it weakens the Mull economy by making it easier to extract and export the island’s natural resources.”

He contrasted this to Norway, where most sawmills were close to the raw material sources and played an important  role in rural economies providing employment.
He gave the example of a medium-scale sawmill in Sjak kommune in Norway.
“Sjak kommune has a population of 2280 people and has 9500ha of forest. Mull has a population of 2667 and around 10,000ha of forest.

“Sjak kommune has two sawmills, and a timber house factory. All these industries are community-owned. Mull has no sawmills that I am aware of – the nearest one is in Morvern – Sound Wood.

“Scotland’s idea of rural economic and industrial development is stuck in an unimaginative rut dominated by elite state and private industrial interests. Those of us who have been long arguing for a different development model have made little or no headway.

“No Government Minister would stand up in Norway and proudly announce a £3 million investment to EXPORT an island’s raw materials. This money would be far better spent investing in timber processing and ancillary industries on Mull to boost jobs and investment in the Mull economy.”

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