Concern grows over North East oil transfer risks

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WILL WE LIVE OR WILL WE DIE?: Gray and Harbor seals, Bottlenose dolphins, porpoises and Minke whales will be under threat, thanks to reckless proposals by Cromarty Firth Port Authority

by Roz Paterson In recent years, the North East coast has become as well-known for its Bottlenose dolphins as for its fishing industry, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year, and providing a huge boon to the local economy and wider tourist industry. All this could be put at risk by a recent proposal, fielded rather quietly by Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA), to conduct ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Cromarty Firth, a richly biodiverse region some 23 miles from Inverness.

Designated a Special Protection Area, the famously deep natural harbour, which opens out into the North Sea, is where you come to view not only the resident colony of Bottlenose dolphins, but also Gray and Harbor seals, porpoises and even Minke whales.

Supporters of the proposal insist that ship-to-ship oil transfers, up to four a week, totalling 8,640,000 tonnes of crude oil a year, are already conducted in the area, without incident.

This is, so far, true. But the current transfers are conducted at the Nigg oil terminal, between ships that are safely at anchor. This new proposal would see transfers take place between unmoored vessels, at the mercy of the open sea.

In other words, in greatly more hazardous conditions. And risk it is. Oil spills—as anyone who remembers the shocking images of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince Edward Sound in 1989, and all the spills and slips and slitters from the oil industry thereafter will know—are devastating to local wildlife populations.

Ingested, the oil is toxic, decimating fish and bird populations, while external exposure, coating feathers and fur, inhibits a creature’s ability to regulate its body temperature, resulting in death from hypothermia. Oil floats, of course, so any animal that inhabits the nearby shore, or breaks surface, will be affected. And if you consider that the oil in such transfers is pumped at a rate of two tonnes per second, and takes up to 40 seconds to shut down once a spillage is detected, even a ‘small’ spill is a major issue.

Alarmingly, the CFPA has not conducted any kind of risk assessment for an oil spill, and responsibility for clean-up lies with the owners of the vessels involved, possibly based as far afield as the Baltic or Africa, rather than the local port authority, who could thus deflect criticism from themselves in the event of a crisis.

The other strut of support for the proposal is that of jobs, the last line of defence in cases where environmental degradation is a serious potential hazard.

It’s a sensitive subject locally, where the impact of the falling-off in world oil prices, and the subsequent aftershocks in the North Sea oil industry, has seen the Cromarty Firth crowding up with redundant oil platforms, and former off-shore workers driving taxis, if they’re lucky.

But the CFPA are being a little disingenuous here. The jobs they offer are dwarfed by what could be lost in the wake of an oil spill, not just in terms of quality of life, but also in terms of actual, existing livelihoods.

Representatives of the fishing industry, including members of the Burghead and Hopeman branch of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, have voiced deep concerns about the proposals, especially given how quickly oil spills can devastate whole regions of coast and contaminate great swathes of fishing stock.

On top of which, the tourist industry which depends on the clean, clear waters favoured by wildlife, is an economic lifeline for the Moray region.

A spokesperson for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), based at the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Moray, notes that, “The income from tourism spending in Scotland due to the presence of the East Coast Bottlenose dolphin population is at least £4million, according to a survey report by the Moray Firth Partnership.”

This report further reveals that more than 200 jobs are generated by this tourist activity, and that dolphin watching is cited as a significant reason to visit the area for over 52,000 overnight visitors.

The WDC are amongst those preparing a “strong and evidence-based response” to the proposals. Others in opposition include the Cromarty Community Council (CCC), who were only notified of the CFPA proposals when an alert member of the public came across a document pertaining to the ‘public’ consultation by chance, and passed it onto the local body, who subsequently raised the alarm.

The timing could not have been more propitious—for the CPFA, that is—being over the Christmas period, but the public outcry at least granted opponents an extension of the deadline.

A packed meeting held by the CCC attracted 122 people, some of whom travelled miles, in stormy conditions, to be there. The CFPA, though invited, failed to materialise. All who attended voted vigorously against the proposals.

A similar proposal was mooted for the Firth of Forth in 2008, but was beaten back by overwhelming opposition, including that of the now Environment Secretary Richard Lochead.

This time around, the government is the SNP, but so far, they are singularly failing to protect what needs to be protected to allow the Moray Coast to thrive.

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