Britain Begins Look Into Causes of Spill

Scottish coast wreck prompts calls for tighter oil tanker regulation

ONE of the most severe environmental disasters to occur in British waters is prompting calls for tougher controls on the movement of tankers through world shipping lanes.

As millions of gallons of crude oil from the stricken Liberian-registered tanker Braer belched out along the coast of Shetland, northern Scotland, threatening seabirds, seals, otters, and salmon fisheries, the British government Wednesday ordered an inquiry into the accident.

But opposition politicians and shipping and ecological experts urged Prime Minister John Major to also spearhead a review of safety standards at sea and to press the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to apply tighter controls over tanker construction and crewing.

The Braer ran aground at Quendale Bay, Shetland, after an engine failure Jan. 5 as it passed through a 22-mile-wide channel during a storm. It was on its way from Norway to Canada.

Gales pushed the tanker and its 85,000-ton (24.6 million gallons) cargo of light crude onto the rocks. The weather was so bad that 18 hours passed before anti-pollution measures could be taken. By then an oil slick had spread along a nine-mile section coastline. At press time, however, much of the cargo was believed still to be in the ship, which was threatening to break up. The worst tanker disaster in British waters previously was in 1967 when the Torrey Canyon ran aground on the coast of Cornwall, spi lling 30,000 tons of oil.

The waters around Shetland are home to a huge variety of birds and marine creatures, and an important North Sea fishing ground. Estimates put the number of birds in the area at 40,000. There are also more than 8,000 seals and 1,000 otters at risk.

Jerome Montague, who headed the clean-up operation after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989 in which 11 million gallons of heavy crude spilled, said the environmental effects of the Shetland spillage could last 70 years.

Other experts, however, said the impact may be less. Paul Cragg, senior lecturer on marine ecology at North London University, said the rough seas around Shetland might help to disperse the oil. But he forecast widespread loss of bird and marine life.

While environmental assessments went ahead, argument erupted between John MacGregor, the British transport secretary, and John Prescott, his opposition Labour party "shadow."

Mr. MacGregor ordered a standard marine inquiry into the accident and said that would be adequate. But Mr. Prescott demanded to know why the tanker had been passing so close to the Shetland coast. He also pressed MacGregor to find out why the crew abandoned ship before tugs could fix a tow line to the stricken tanker.

Mike Hudner, chief executive of the New York-based B & H group, which operated the Braer, rejected claims that the ship's captain had been wrong to navigate so close to Shetland and insisted that the crew had been right to leave the vessel when it did.

"The safety of the crew must come first," he said. His comments were echoed by coast guard officials who defended their action in rescuing the crew when the ship was nearing the rocks.

THE wreck has spotlighted the high proportion of ships sailing under flags of convenience. In December, the Liberian-registered tanker Aegean Sea ran aground near the Spanish port of La Coruna spilling 23 million gallons of oil and bursting into flames. A slick affected 40 miles of coastline. Lloyd's Register of Shipping lists more than 25 percent of the world's tonnage registered in Liberia, Panama and other nations with lax regulations controlling ship registrations.

Since the Exxon Valdez spill, the IMO has drawn up rules to require that tankers be built with double hulls after July. The Braer, built in Japan in 1975, was single-hulled. Roger Kohn, an IMO spokesman, said many of the world's 3,000 tankers were built in the 1970s and are now regarded as out of date. "In the present economic climate, owners are hanging on to old ships," he said.

Gerard Pate, a Dutch marine expert who advises the IMO and the environmental group Friends of the Earth on safety at sea, said it was "essential for tankers to be built with double-skin hulls if Shetland-type catastrophes are to be averted."

Since the Exxon Valdez accident, the US government banned single-hulled tankers from coastal waters. And Prescott says Britain should take similar unilateral action. John Newman, general secretary of the Merchant Navy Officers' union, Numast, said 60 percent of foreign ships checked in British ports in 1991 were found to have defects. Numast told the government last year that coastal pollution incidents had risen 250 percent between 1985 and 1990.

Argument has centered on how to treat the Shetland oil spill. The government followed a policy Tuesday and Wednesday of spraying chemicals and biological agents to break up the oil. But environmentalists and salmon fisheries owners disputed the practice saying it would do more harm than good.

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