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There are no guarantees that it.

Byline: By SAM BURSON Western Mail

It was 10 years ago this evening that the Sea Empress oil tanker ran aground while trying to enter Milford Haven harbour. 72,000 tonnes of its crude oil cargo spilled into the sea. In the last of three special reports, Pembrokeshire reporter Sam Burson asks how safe the Welsh coast is now FOR some people there is no doubt: It will happen again. Wildlife expert Iolo Williams is one of those who insists we will never be safe from the environmental risks of oil tankers.

But today an independent report commissioned by WWF Cymru, and released on the disaster's 10th anniversary, has given added weight to Iolo's stance, and those who share his view.

Entitled An overview of shipping activities in UK waters - Ten years on from the Sea Empress disaster, it outlines three main areas of concern.

It says an increase in shipping traffic, ineffective legislation and future climate change could cause another major industrial shipping accident around the Welsh coast.

'Three of the world's worst oil tanker spills happened in UK waters. The ingredients are still present around our coast for another oil tanker incident,' said Morgan Parry, head of WWF Cymru.

'There are over 300 pollution reports each year that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency deals with, one of the latest being the sinking of the chemical tanker, the Ece, earlier this year.

'Significant efforts have been made since the Sea Empress grounding to prevent another disaster but we can't be complacent.

'The UK Government and Welsh Assembly Government need to constantly assess new threats and create contingency plans. This report highlights the gap between the threats and the protection our marine environment needs.'

The report says tanker traffic routes around Wales are busier than they were in 1996.

Maritime Coastguard Agency data showed there had been 104 tanker-related oil pollution incidents in UK waters between 1998 and 2002, and between 2000 and 2002 one in 10 ships were involved in an accident.

It also criticises a lack of legislation to prevent large ship-to-ship transfers of oil off the UK coast, claiming the practice is risky, and that it is becoming more common because of an increase in demand for Russian oil.

The report concludes global warming is likely to contribute to more storms around the Welsh coastline, which, as in 1996, could spell disaster for tankers.

WWF Cymru is urging the Welsh Assembly Government to support the UK Government's proposed new Marine Act.

Mr Parry said, 'In Wales we are only too aware of how much damage shipping disasters such as the Sea Empress can inflict on a region's marine environment, economy and valuable fisheries.

'We urge the Welsh Assembly Government to use its powers to support the proposed Marine Bill and help establish a new Marine Act incorporating marine spatial planning.

'Only through this approach will there be a strategy in place to adequately protect our seas from the risks associated with increased human activity such as shipping and energy generation.'

Ian Evans, a retired marine pilot living in Milford Haven, is one of those convinced there is every chance of another catastrophic tanker accident.

He said, 'If you're asking if the exact same accident can happen, then no, because tankers can no longer come in at the same tide in the same place.

'But there is every chance a tanker will run aground again.

'It happened three times before the Sea Empress, and luckily there were no spills, but none of the new regulations would have prevented those incidents.'

He added, 'Tugs are not going to be able to stop a 250,000-tonne vessel travelling at 10 knots. That's 6,000 feet a minute, and sometimes with just a few hundred yards either side to manoeuvre. If there's a problem, it's not going to be stopped in time.'

Ted Sangster, chief executive of Milford Haven Port Authority, admitted there was no way to guarantee against another tanker accident.

But he insisted the chances had been greatly reduced since 1996, saying, 'It would take somebody foolish to say it couldn't happen again, but it's not right either to say that it definitely will happen.

'It's much less likely to happen in the future because of the lessons learned and new measures put in place.'

He said last year 3,516 commercial ships entered the haven, (not including fishing boats), but that the figure was only several hundred more than in 1996.

However despite his confidence about the chances of a future accident, court action against the authority has left him troubled about the implications, should one occur, to the aftermath.

Since the Sea Empress, the Environment Agency has prosecuted Milford Haven Port Authority, which was fined pounds 4m for allowing oil to

pollute the coastline. The sum was later reduced to pounds 750,000 on appeal.

However while some environmentalists welcomed the move, Mr Sangster is worried it could discourage port authorities and salvors from taking action after any future spill.

Under the strict liability rule of the Water Resources Act, if more oil is spilled during a salvage operation, whoever carried it out is held responsible for any subsequent spillage, unless human life is at risk.

Mr Sangster said, 'There is never any guarantee in those situations that more oil will not be spilled.

'It's a catch-22 situation, and a dangerous one which needs to be changed.'

Despite constant criticism of the law by environmentalists, one new piece of Government legislation welcomed this week has identified the islands off Pembrokeshire as areas which should be protected.

The conservation gold mines, including Skomer and Skokholm, were named on a list of 32 UK locations at risk of pollution from merchant shipping.

The locations have been named as Marine Environmental High Risk Areas (Mehras), the existence of which will be highlighted to mariners due to their environmental importance and vulnerability to pollution

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said, 'Mehras will be an essential aid to passage planning since their primary purpose is to inform ships' masters of areas where they need to exercise even more caution than usual.

'This is just part of the information available to mariners to enable them to navigate UK waters safely.'

The news was given a cautious welcome by environmental campaigners in Pembrokeshire, who say the measures are overdue.

Gordon James, of Friends of the Earth Cymru, welcomed the news but added, 'It's regrettable that it has taken the Government almost 12 years to do this.

'In view of what happened with the Sea Empress, we believe it should have occurred much earlier. It is important that the Mehra is properly implemented so that all shipping avoids the most environmentally-important areas and takes particular care off the Pembrokeshire coast.'

The measures were recommended in the Safer Ships - Cleaner Seas, report by Lord Donaldson, following the 1993 Braer disaster off the Shetland Islands, when 85,000 tonnes of oil was spilled.

In total his report listed 103 recommendations. While many have been adopted, the need for a heavy-duty emergency towing vessel to cover the Irish Sea, based at Milford Haven, is one which still causes concern. The nearest such vessel to Milford Haven, is at Falmouth - at least 14 hours away. The increasing volume of shipping in the Irish sea has led to increasing calls for one to be based nearer.

An agreement is being sought with the Irish Government to share the cost of a new tug, similar to the arrangement of the Dover tug, which is shared between England and France, although there has been little progress on the project.

Alarming concerns have also been expressed over imports of liquid natural gas.

About 300 tankers per year will eventually supply up to a quarter of the UK's gas supply through the port.

Gordon Main, from the campaign group Safe Haven, believes the ships have more potential for disaster than any oil tanker.

He said, 'There's no more risk of an LNG tanker crashing than an oil tanker, but the consequences could be so much worse.

'A huge cloud of flammable gas would not pollute the coastline. It would kill people.

'I don't believe these increased risks have been taken into account.'

However Mr Sangster said such a view was, 'irresponsible scare-mongering'.

He stressed, 'There have been over 40,000 loaded voyages of LNG, and there's never been a case of any escaping, even when there have been incidents of the ships grounding.

'The technology and the processes behind the transportation of LNG are as safe as they can be.'

The debate over the safety of shipping has raged for 10 years, and, with the new LNG developments, is only going to continue and to become more intense.

It is clear no precautions can ever be infallible, and, while we all rely on fuel imports, sceptics over shipping safety can only stand to be proved right.

It can only be hoped they never again will be.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 15, 2006
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