Possible U-turn over Southwold tanker zone plan

The government may be considering a U-turn on a controversial ship-to-ship oil transfer zone in Sole Bay, it has been revealed.

Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey told Southwold residents that shipping minister Mike Penning is considering banning tankers from anchoring off the town.

Dr Coffey said a proposed oil transfer zone may be moved away from Southwold so giant vessels, some weighing up to 300,000 tonnes, will not be able to drop anchor off the picturesque resort.

The government wants to create Britain's only transfer zone between Lowestoft and Southwold to allow small tankers bringing oil from Russia to transfer their load to larger vessels.

Residents of Southwold have been up in arms over the zone, which was due to be set up next month but has been delayed, because of concerns over pollution and that the sight of small fleet of tankers moored off Southwold would put off visitors to the town.

But Dr Coffey told a public meeting on Saturday night that Mr Penning was considering moving the zone away from Southwold as part of a consultation process. Dr Coffey said: 'That is something I think that is going on at the moment. The minister still wants to keep the zone in the Lowestoft area but maybe move it elsewhere (away from Southwold).'

People in Southwold want a total ban on any tankers being allowed to carry out transfer within the British territorial waters which extend 12 miles out from the Suffolk coast to prevent any environmental hazard.

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Last year there were 278 transfers off the coast between Lowestoft and Southwold – compared to only 13 in 2007.

The meeting heard there could be a 30pc chance of a major spill in the Sole Bay area over the next 25 years if the zone was approved.

It is feared any disaster would have dramatic consequences on Waveney's �255m tourism industry.

Dr Coffey was accused of not doing enough to protect Southwold from the tanker threat after she would not say she supported an outright ban on tanker transfers in British territorial waters. She said her preferred option was for transfers to take place in harbours and if that was not possible then the operations should take place under tighter regulations.

The meeting was organised by the Southwold and Reydon Society which strongly opposes the creation of a tanker zone. Secretary John Perkins said: 'It is simply too risky to have this happening off the shore off Southwold.'

James Reeder, vice-chairman of Waveney and Lowestoft chamber of trade, said they supported the creation of the zone as tanker transfers contribute �5m to the local economy and double-hulled tankers meet strict safety standards.

A consultation on the transfer zone between Lowestoft and Southwold ended on Thursday.