Battle goes on as oil transfers get green light

CONTROVERSIAL plans to pump Russian crude oil between supertankers in the Firth of Forth were yesterday given the go-ahead despite fears from environmentalists that an accident would cause a catastrophic spill in the area.

The announcement by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) follows the revelation that an investigation had been launched by the European Union to assess whether the proposals were in breach of environmental regulations.

Under the newly approved plans, Sunderland-based Melbourne Marine Services is set to pump about 7.8 million tonnes of Russian crude every year between tankers lying four miles off the Fife coast. Forth Ports, the harbour authority, stands to earn more than 6 million a year from the transfers.

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Last night, a coalition of MEPs, MSPs and wildlife campaigners raised concerns about the scheme, claiming that the Firth's habitat - including its two designated Special Protection Areas (SPA) for seabirds - would be put in serious jeopardy if the proposals went ahead.

Fife and East Lothian councils are also exploring legal avenues to stop the transfers. Richard Evans, sites policy officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland, said the charity would watch with "great diligence" the activities taking place in the Firth of Forth.

"We remain extremely concerned about the disastrous potential of this activity in the Firth of Forth and its impact on the internationally important bird life.

"We and other concerned parties, including MSPs, MEPs and local authorities, will continue to watch the activities of Forth Ports with great diligence over the forthcoming months."

Speaking about the recently launched EU investigation, Mr Evans said the Scottish Executive, which ensures the plans comply with environmental laws, could be exposed to legal action if the investigation finds the EU habitat directive is not being upheld.

"The buck in these cases goes from the European Commission on to the Foreign Office and then on to Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] because it's a wildlife case," he said. "Defra would pass the buck on to Scottish ministers and what we don't know at the moment is what leverage they [ministers] have to make sure that the authorities in charge do a proper job with regard to the requirements of the habitat directive.

"This is a very long way off but, yes, it could leave ministers to carry the can."

Alyn Smith, the Scottish National Party MEP who instigated the EU investigation, said the outcome of the exercise could ultimately overrule the latest decision by the authorities in charge - the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Forth Ports.

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"I think this is an unfortunate decision by the MCA. What I hope is that the commissioner will look into this and say if ship-to-ship oil transfers are taking place in the Firth of Forth, it would contravene the legislation. If it contravenes the legislation, then it can't happen," Mr Smith said.

"We are pushing for these plans to be overruled. We have a powerful ally in Europe and we can now go to the MCA and say, 'We have an ally who has the power to overrule you'."

Three months ago, the MCA indicated it would approve the plans but stressed that any final decision would not discharge Forth Ports from its statutory duty in relation to the EU's habitat directive.

Mark Ruskell, the Green MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and the party's spokesman on the environment, said: "This battle is far from over. Forth Ports - already in the public eye following the recent chemical leak in Grangemouth - could now face a huge legal battle, and investor confidence in a plc that has anything but a clean reputation could be shattered.

"It's quickly coming round to D-Day for Executive ministers. They hold the licensing powers where protected species such as dolphins are threatened - they must now use them."

Ship-to-ship transfers already take place at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Sullom Voe in Shetland and at Nigg in the Cromarty Firth.

Last night, the Scottish Executive refused to comment until officially notified of the EU investigation.

A spokesman for the MCA said: "Forth Ports is under a duty to have regard to the conservation of the natural beauty of the countryside and of flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest when formulating or considering any proposals relating to its functions.

"It must take into account the effects which the proposals may have."