The Shetland Oil Spill 14 Years Ago vs. Today's Disaster

IT has not been mentioned much in the media coverage of the Braer disaster, but Shetland already had an oil spill. It occurred at the then brand-new oil terminal at Sullom Voe in 1978-79. The most lucrative industry on Shetland is oil: The Sullom Voe port services some of the North Sea oil fields.

Retired headmaster Louis Johnson, who lives on Yell, the second largest of Shetland's islands, north of Mainland, remembers the "treacly" oil escaping into Yell Sound from this spill and plastering coastlines. "The bird life suffered terribly. Well up on 4,000 corpses were recovered. According to some estimates, there may have been double that number of casualties," he says.

Pete Ellis, Shetland officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, thinks that the 1,500 known bird fatalities after the Braer represent "only 20 percent of what was killed." He believes that, owing to the extreme weather conditions last month, a far smaller number of dead birds were found than after the earlier spill, which was "in a much more enclosed area." At that time, he says, "they recovered a lot of the oiled birds."

The earlier spill resulted in what writer Jonathan Wills commends as "the best tanker-safety scheme in the world." But it only applies to tankers going to the port of Sullom Voe. The Braer disaster was in no way connected with the Shetland oil industry as such.

Mr. Wills, the author of "A Place in the Sun: Shetland and Oil" (1991), is now hard at work on a book about the Braer disaster. He believes the immediate blame for the event has to be the ship's captain and owners. He comments ironically: "It was a good ship by the standards of the industry - which are extremely low."

Like most oil tankers, the Braer had "no backup generators," Wills says, "and all tankers go to sea with anchors that can't be used in heavy weather." Critical of the master of the Braer, Wills also claims that the engine trouble which ended in complete loss of power was known about some five hours before the authorities were notified.

But the wider blame, he argues, belongs to the British government. "You are always going to get ship owners and masters taking a chance." If the watching of shores is inadequate, disasters like the Braer will happen. "If we had had due warning, there would have been time for a tug to get to the ship, even in that weather," Wills says. He adds: "The way to deal with oil spills is not to have them."

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