Insight: Rig on the rocks exposes environmental disaster risk

A coast guard monitors the Transocean Winner drilling rig on the coast of the Isle of Lewis. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
A coast guard monitors the Transocean Winner drilling rig on the coast of the Isle of Lewis. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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When Duncan Macarthur awoke on Monday morning ready to face a new week, two notions occurred to him as he threw back the curtains in the bedroom of his house in the hamlet of Dail Mòr. The first was that aliens had landed off his picturesque nook of the Outer Hebrides. The second was rather more practical. “I thought I’d better put some clothes on and see what’s happening,” said the 64-year-old.

Oir Na Greine, the retired IT consultant’s property, enjoys a plum, elevated position north of Carloway on one of the north-western peninsulas that binds Lewis to the Atlantic. Ordinarily, it commands unencumbered views of the waves as they sweep past a shingle bar and cluster of sea stacks and into a sandy strip popular with tourists and surfers.

This particular Monday, however, he was greeted by the sight of the Transocean Winner, a sprawling 17,000-tonne drilling rig that had run ashore in the bay. “It was so overwhelming to see this thing a stone’s throw from my house,” he added. “God only knows how long it’s going to be there. If it had been a tanker, all hell would have broken loose by now.”

With the semi-submersible rig still grounded and concerns that up to 52 metric tonnes of diesel have leaked into the sea from two breached fuel tanks, there remain acute fears it could result in Scotland’s worst environmental catastrophe since the Braer tanker ran aground just west of Shetland’s Sumburgh Head, shedding its 84,700 tonnes of crude oil into the North Sea.

That disaster and its devastating ecological fallout prompted a full-scale inquiry, tens of millions of pounds in compensation payments, and a resolve on the part of the maritime industry and the political establishment to ensure that it could never happen again.

Some 23 years on, however, questions are being asked of whether complacency, incompetence and government cost-cutting have conspired to once again put Scotland’s waters and shorelines at unnecessary risk.

The perilous fate of the Transocean Winner has sparked a series of questions, from whether the existing Hebridean Deep Sea Water route – which passes just four miles off the coast – is far enough out at sea to protect the archipelago from ships in distress, to why such a vast rig was towed along such an exposed route when forecasters warned of treacherous conditions. Some answers must wait for the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to complete its investigation. Others are already the subject of intense debate.

Chief among them is a row that has been playing out in the Western Isles for the past six years, but which has received cursory national attention. It concerns the capacity and response of the UK’s emergency towing vessels (ETVs), powerful salvage tugs designed to usher stricken vessels to safety lest they drift on to rocks or vulnerable coasts.

When the crew of the Alp Forward, a tugboat towing the Transocean Winner, got into difficulty in heavy seas, they put out a call for assistance at approximately 6.15pm on Sunday. Within a quarter of an hour, Herakles, the UK’s only remaining ETV, had mobilised. There was, however, one obvious logistical challenge – the Herakles was stationed at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands.

By the time it arrived off western Lewis at 12.30pm the next day, it was too late. The towing line connecting the Transocean Winner to the Alp Forward broke at around 4.15am. The rig ran ashore a little over three hours later.

Given the conditions at the time – there were sea swells of up to 30 feet off Lewis on Sunday evening – there is no guarantee the Herakles could have prevented the grounding. Even so, those with an interest in protecting the Outer Hebrides say the principle of having no ETV in the Western Isles is untenable.

Rae Mackenzie, the councillor for Steòrnabhagh a Deas (Stornoway South), described the grounding as a “perfect illustration of what can go wrong when a major incident takes place and the only ETV is based in the Northern Isles.

“The tug in this case was scheduled to take a least 14 hours to reach the site which was far too long as after this time the oil rig had grounded,” he said.

“Many communities and political representatives on the west coast of Scotland have repeatedly made representations to the UK government for the return of a second tug based in Stornoway. This has fallen on deaf ears and now we see the consequences.”

Indeed, ever since funding for the Stornoway ETV and two others in England were withdrawn as part of a £32.5m saving drive in the 2010 Spending Review, there has been a near continuous campaign for its reinstatement to protect waters that are routinely busy; over a 30-day period last autumn, some 66 tankers and 202 general cargo vessels passed through the Minches and the west of Lewis.

Critics of the cuts pointed out that, just two days after the announcement was made, the nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Astute, ran aground in shallow waters off Skye, requiring the assistance of the outgoing ETV. A week later, it came to the aid of Red Duchess, a 1,300-tonne cargo ship which got into difficulty in gale force winds off the coast of Rum.

Those flashpoints were not enough to force a rethink on the part of the UK government, who pointed to Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) figures showing the Stornoway vessel was only deployed five times between 2004 and 2009. In any case, supporters of the move have reasoned, the increased prevalence of electronic charts, integrated bridge navigation systems and automatic identification have made our seas safer places.

But supporters of the Stornoway ETV stress the risk of a disaster can never be eradicated. Those with reason to question the government’s wisdom have not wanted for evidence with which to augment their case, such as the occasion in 2012 when the Dutch cargo ship MN Flinterspirit ran aground off North Uist, or the 2015 grounding of the 7,500-tonne container ship MV Lysblink Seaways at Kilchoan.

There was no loss of life or environmental damage in either of those incidents, but the fact the ETV had to travel from Orkney was seized upon.

For those who were involved first-hand in the unfolding calamity after the Braer was left stricken in Shetland’s Quendale Bay, the plight of the Transocean Winner brings back painful memories.

Captain George Sutherland, a former mariner who was director of marine operations at Shetland Islands Council and led the marine response to the disaster, believes critical lessons learned from Braer are being forgotten.

“The current service is wholly inadequate. You don’t need to be a maritime expert to realise the sailing time from Orkney to the Western Isles can take up to 17 hours,” he said.

“The problem, of course, is cost, but the sea blindness of successive UK governments has led to the ambition to save money by trying to do away with the ETVs altogether.”

Sutherland, now retired, added: “Nobody has suggested that just because there haven’t been any major fires in Fort William in the past few years that the local fire service should be disbanded.”

Sutherland is more appreciative than most of the irony that the network of ETVs was one of the few positive legacies to emerge from Braer following Lord Donaldson’s inquiry. His 500-page report into the disaster, “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, signalled the biggest regulatory overhaul in British maritime history.

Published in May 1994, its 103 recommendations included a proposed network of tugs in British waters to respond to emergencies. That same year, two ETVs were stationed at Dover and Stornoway for the winter months only, but following a further review in 2000, the fleet was increased to four, providing cover on a 24-hour, year-round basis, with the new tugs covering the Fair Isle channel and the south-west approaches.

Since then, however, the strategy has been one of retrenchment. Even the Orkney ETV future was in doubt until last month, when the UK government announced it was to continue funding the service – at a cost of around £2m to £3m a year – for the next five years.

Such an approach goes against European convention. Spain has 14 ETVs, Norway seven, and France five. Even Germany, with its modest 1,485-mile North Sea coastline compared to Scotland’s 10,250 miles, has seven.

“I’m sure that other national administrations across Europe look at what the UK has in terms of maritime provision with bemusement,” Sutherland suggests.

Yet any hopes that the Transocean Winner incident will herald the reinstatement of an ETV to the Western Isles look some way from being realised. The UK government has insisted the service could and should be provided by commercial ship operators and their insurers, but the parlous economic climate means that is unlikely, resulting in a potentially dangerous stalemate.

The industry body Oil and Gas UK told Scotland on Sunday it was not aware of any proposals for commercial interests to fund, prepare or lease tugs for use as ETVs.

Mike Borwell, the organisation’s health, safety and environment director, explained: “Given the current challenging business climate the sector is facing, it is unlikely to play an active role in financing this service which also supports the wider marine community.”

Even in the event of an economic upturn, Sutherland takes the view that commercial involvement in the ETV fleet would be a compromise too far.

“Once upon a time, commercial companies like Smits maintained salvage vessels at strategic locations around the coastlines of Europe, because there were more tragedies and, frankly, there was a living to be made out of it, but that opportunity no longer exists today.

“To rely on commercially employed high-capacity units working with the oil industry is doomed to failure, because they will never be in the right place at the right time, the decks will never be free, or they’ll be pulling something else. They can’t drop and go just because someone has raised an emergency call.”

The pressure for the UK government to find a way to return an ETV to the Western Isles will no doubt intensify over the coming days and weeks, but according to one senior source at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the clamour could go further.

“I think we are likely to see a major push for the devolution of ETV provision because the arguments for a commercial alternative are simply not viable,” the source explained. “There would be major reluctance for the wholesale devolution of the MCA, but as an argument, it’s a strong bargaining point when it comes to more ETVs.”

In the meantime, the onerous task of assessing the damage to the Transocean Winner rig and determining how best to remove it will go on. In Duncan Macarthur’s opinion, the surprising sight which greeted him on Monday morning will remain in situ for a while yet.

“I can see the rig being broken up here, because two of its legs are on the rocks and the other two are on the beach – it won’t be easy trying to move it.”

He added: “I used to live in Kent, and I’m sure if this had happened on the south-east coast, a major recovery operation would be underway now. But I’m in one of the most remote parts of Britain and I don’t think it has the same priority.”