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Government ignores its experts over tugs

The UK Government is risking environmental disasters by scrapping emergency tugs in breach of its own expert advice, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

A leaked report prepared for the Government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency warns that four tugs -- two based in Scotland -- are needed to prevent “catastrophic” spillages of oil, toxic chemicals or radioactive waste from accidents at sea.

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Yet UK ministers have decided to cancel the £12 million-a-year contract for the tugs from September 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 councils.

Withdrawing funding for the tugs is “reckless and wrong-headed”, said Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead. “It has potentially serious consequences for human and environmental safety.

“Recent incidents have underlined the vital role 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 rescued HMS Astute, the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine, after it grounded near Skye last October. Around the UK they have prevented up to 35,800 tonnes of oil pollution from 48 shipping incidents since 2005, according to an analysis by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The “emergency towing vessels” are stationed at Lerwick, Shetland; Stornoway, Lewis; Dover, Kent; and Falmouth, 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.

But this decision ignored the clear advice from experts in an internal MCA report passed to the Sunday Herald. “The current strategy of four vessels is correct,” concluded the report, saying this was “to all intents and purposes an obligation for a country such as the UK”.

The report pointed out 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 the cost of the Prestige oil spill off Spain in 2002 was “in the order of £650m and rising”.

Mike Penning, Shipping Minister at Westminster, 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.

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