CAMPAIGNERS have welcomed the retention of an emergency tug in the north of Scotland’s waters, albeit for six months.
Orkney, Shetland, Western Isles and Highland councils, along with Highlands and Islands MPs and MSPs, had raised concerns about the loss of the service.
Tug were introduced to waters along the coastline of north and west coastlines of the country after a report by Lord Donaldson into the Braer oil tanker disaster off Shetland in 1993.
UK Transport Minister Robert Goodwill said the contract had now been extended to allow time for a longer-term solution to be found.
Until 2012, Scotland had two emergency towing vessels (ETVs) available for towing ships that had grounded or broken down.
The future of the remaining tug had been in doubt for several months.
Mr Goodwill told the Commons: “I have instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to make immediate arrangements to extend the provision of a government-funded emergency towing vessel to mirror the current arrangements until 30 September this year.”
Lib Dem Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said the extension was welcomed, while Ross, Skye and Lochaber SNP MP Ian Blackford renewed calls for the reinstatement of a second ETV.
A year ago, the emergency tug Herakles was involved in an operation to refloat a cargo ship that ran aground near Ardnamurchan Point in the north west Highlands.
The Lysblink Seaways, which was carrying paper from Belfast to Norway, was later refloated and towed away.
Earlier this month the leader of Highland Council, Margaret Davidson, attended a day long session hosted by the MCA and involving a range of stakeholders to look at the implications of the ETV’s removal.
At this meeting there was unanimous approval of an MCA risk assessment which showed that removal of the ETV would raise the risk of catastrophic environmental damage and threat to life to unacceptable levels.
Attendees agreed to work with the MCA to explore a range of delivery models but stressed time was far too limited to achieve an satisfactory outcome without an extension to the current contract.
Mrs Davidson said: “I welcome the temporary reprieve for the retention of the current ETV provision.
“This decision goes some way to the UK Government acknowledging the risks we face from extreme weather, treacherous coastlines, hazardous tides and the transportation of fuel and nuclear material in our northern waters and therefore the huge importance of maintaining the presence of this capability in the north.
“This allows a short amount of time to pause and reflect on the issues that have been raised and also to consider how these risks in the north and in the Minches will be managed in the long term.
“Let us use this time constructively to ensure that wise decisions will be made on the long term provision of maritime safety around our shores.”
Councillor Richard Greene, vice-chair of the council’s Community Services Committee and Council representative of KIMO, added: “This is good news and suggests the Government is listening to our genuine concerns.
“However, the relief is only temporary and we need to keep working with both Governments to reach a sustainable long term solution, not only to maintain the current level of protection but also to reintroduce specific measures to protect the west coast and the Minches in particular.”
The ETV in Stornoway was removed in 2011 as a cost cutting exercise by the UK Government.
This was opposed strongly by Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil and local agencies who argued this left the West Coast vulnerable in the event of an emergency at sea which could endanger life and lead to environmental damage.
Speaking during the Commons 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.”
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.”