Key debate on Southwold ship-to-ship transfer plans

An organisation has vowed to fight a plan to create a ship-to-ship transfer zone off the coast of Southwold regardless of whether it is backed by the government.

The pledge has been made by members of the Southwold and Reydon Society in light of today's crucial parliamentary debate which will discuss whether an area of Sole Bay should become the only offshore zone within UK territorial waters where tankers can exchange oil.

If the committee agrees with shipping minister Mike Penning's plans, the scheme could be passed by MPs in the Commons in a matter of days.

But an unlikely political alliance has been formed by the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, Therese Coffey, and Labour's shadow minister for transport, Jim Fitzpatrick, who will both call on the seventh Delegated Legislation Committee to throw out the proposals.

Labour wants the transfers to be limited to harbour authority waters, while Dr Coffey wants transfers to take place in all UK authority waters to stop Southwold becoming a 'flashing beacon' for the giant vessels.

John Perkins, secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, is determined to keep fighting against the zone, which he claims pose a threat to Waveney's �250m tourism industry.

He said: 'The society always monitors the movement of the tankers via a website online, and I know more people in Southwold are beginning to follow them as well.

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'The fact that the issue led to one of the biggest meetings in Southwold's history last year gives people an idea how angry we are.

'I don't see what Southwold gets out of this, and if there was anything beneficial it would be for a few people in Lowestoft. Nobody wants people to lose jobs, but from a Southwold perspective, there is a big tourism industry here and on the horizon there is this huge threat.

'The zone could be passed within days of Southwold losing its blue-flag status – these things will make the tourism industry even harder.

'No one has ever quantified what revenue these tankers bring to Waveney. We could be really generous and say �5m per year, but compare that to the �250m that Waveney makes in tourism each year and there's no contest – why would you want to risk that.'

Mr Penning submitted a draft of the statutory instrument on March 9, which provided a series of amendments to regulations issued by the government on marine pollution in 2010.

It was due to come into effect after 40 parliamentary days, but was delayed when Dr Coffey 'prayed against' – a power available to MPs and peers when objecting to statutory instruments.

At present, tankers can transfer oil anywhere inside UK waters.

But if the scheme is approved then a transfer zone would be created 12 miles off Southwold with a 1.5-mile radius.

Cpt Bob Gilchrist is the director of Safe STS, based in Diss, which carried out its first liquefied gas transfer off the coast of Southwold in June last year.

In the same month, the company claimed to have successfully transferred more than 98,000,000 barrels of oil and gas since it started trading in May 2010. Cpt Gilchrist said: 'Ship-to-ship transfers are for consolidating cargo for long haul and breaking bulk cargo when coming in. It is safer for large tankers to remain in deep water where they don't risk running aground,

'But it is also a trading tool as well because ports don't have the tanks or infrastructure for imports and what they do have is fully utilised.

'It also means ships do not have to make costly diversions in order to transfer their cargo.'

The previous Labour government drew up draft legislation for a blanket ban on the transfer of oil between ships within UK waters, which would have come into effect in October 2010.

But Mr Penning delayed the ban when the Conservatives came into power, allowing the ship-to-ship transfers to continue.

Sole Bay's calm waters are favoured by small tankers bringing oil from Russia that transfer their load to larger vessels. The fact that so many gather off Southwold has prompted local concerns.

At present, each ship-to-ship transfer is monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which processes transfer requests to make sure they are conducted safely.

Waveney District Council's environmental health offices also work with maritime agencies to ensure high standards of care and safety are maintained.

The seventh Delegated Legislation Committee meeting will be held today at 4.30pm.

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