Southwold tanker twist as Waveney may escape tanker zone beacon status

THE long-running saga over plans for a ship-to-ship oil transfer zone off the coast of Waveney took an unexpected twist this week when rival politicians joined forces to oppose the controversial move.

An area off Sole Bay looked set to become the only permitted offshore zone within UK territorial waters where the transfers could take place after new proposals were submitted by the government earlier this month.

But this week shadow MP for transport Jim Fitzpatrick and Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, tabled a motion in Westminster to oppose the creation of the 'official' transfer zone about 12 miles from Southwold.

It came after Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Waveney, Bob Blizzard, learned that a draft Statutory Instrument – proposing that transfers be permitted within the new zone off Sole Bay – had been laid before Parliament on March 9. It proposes transfers should also be allowed within harbours.

Mr Blizzard, who fought for a complete ban on ship-to-ship oil transfers in UK waters while he was MP for Waveney, spoke to Mr Fitzpatrick to ensure the new proposals were fully debated in the Commons.

He fears the proposed tanker zone – which would have a 1.5 mile radius– has the potential to damage both the environment and Waveney's tourism industry, which is worth an estimated �255m

That is a view shared by campaigners in Southwold who fought a determined battle to oppose the new zone.

Most Read

Mr Blizzard said he felt it was wrong the government was 'dumping' the ship-to-ship transfers on north Suffolk.

'If it is so safe then why is it not to be allowed in other coastal areas? They know there is a risk. We only want it in the harbour authority waters where the oil-spill equipment is on hand,' he said. 'This gives our area a bad reputation as an oil transfer capital. It will be damaging to our tourism industry and could be disastrous.'

Shipping minister Mike 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' it – a power available to both MPs and Peers when objecting to Statutory Instruments.

Unlike Mr Blizzard, Dr Coffey maintains that ship-to-ship transfers are 'safe' and should be allowed to take place in all UK territorial waters. But she fears that creating an official transfer zone off Southwold would make it a 'beacon' for giant vessels wanting to transfer oil. She said: 'Residents will know that I believe ship-to-ship transfers are safe and not damaging to our area but that I do not want a virtual flashing beacon off the coast of Southwold that encourages ships to do all their transfers in open waters just in our part of the coast.

'While this intervention is only a further delay, I hope it gives a fresh opportunity to resolve this particular issue.'

Meanwhile, Dr Coffey has welcomed some changes to the current regulations, including a formal review after five years. But she is determined to have her say on the proposals when the shipping minister conducts his next review.

'The skills of ship-to-ship transfers need to be kept locally and in the UK,' she said.

'There are vessels out there whose cargo is not oil but can still get into difficulty. It is thanks to having these skills in the UK that we can handle those incidents efficiently and effectively.'

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

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.

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

The Southwold and Reydon Society mounted a campaign against the transfer zone by compiling a petition signed by 150 people and airing their views to Dr Coffey when she attended their annual meeting in March last year.

John Perkins, secretary of the society, said: 'We cautiously welcome Therese Coffey's decision (to oppose the latest proposals) and I hope that it does come to a debate. If it does, then the issue will be aired in public, which it has never been before. But we still fundamentally disagree with her opinion that tankers are safe.

'It is frightening to see tankers moored off the beaches where children are playing. About 6,000 jobs in Waveney depend on tourism and one oil spill would ruin that. However, while there used to be lines of tankers off the coast of Southwold, so far there have only been 30 applications for transfers this year – a fraction of what it was in 2010.'

Meanwhile, Waveney MP Peter Aldous supports the policy of not banning the transfers and – like some business leaders in Lowestoft – thinks the practice benefits the area by creating jobs.

He said: 'Having considered all the available evidence, it is my opinion that there is not a case for banning ship to ship oil transfers as it is a well regulated practice with an excellent safety record. 'transfers have taken place here for many years and this has meant that local business have built up considerable expertise in the safe handling of oil, a skill which they have taken around the world and which has provided employment for local people.'

At present, each ship-to-ship transfer is monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) which processes transfer requests to make sure they are conducted safely, and Waveney District Council's environmental health officers also work with maritime agencies to ensure high standards of care and safety are maintained.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter