Oil spill could devastate wildlife - RSPB

A DECISION to allow ship-to-ship oil transfers to be made exclusively off the north Suffolk coast has been criticised by a leading conservation charity.

The RSPB claims entire species of sea birds could be wiped out by an oil spill in the Sole Bay stretch, off Southwold, which was earlier this month deemed the appropriate spot for tankers to transfer oil to larger ships in UK waters.

The charity said a decision to limit the practice only to Sole Bay, announced by transport minister Mike Penning following an extended public consultation, during which more than 150 written objections were received from the public, could threaten the already vulnerable habitats of internationally important birds.

John Sharpe, RSPB Conservation Manager in the East of England, said: 'Although this is good news for other areas of the UK coast, we are not clear that an appropriate assessment has been done, and that as a result an inappropriate location has been identified.

'While there have been no major spills to date, a big worry is that sufficient protective measures have not been put in place to minimise negative impacts on both communities and wildlife in the event of an oil spill.'

The Suffolk coast is one of only three sites in UK waters to have received EU Habitats Directive protection for the habitat of sea birds such as gulls and terns, wading birds including avocets, black-tailed godwit and redshank, and internationally important numbers of species including red-throated divers.

The Department for Transport stressed that oil transfers from tankers to larger ships moored off the coast would continue under strict conditions.

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The decision, it said, was based on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's and the industry's use of the waters for operations over a number of years without pollution of the seas and coasts.

Waveney District Council meanwhile ensured its environmental health team would work with maritime agencies to make sure high standards of care and safety were maintained.

But Mr Sharpe does not believe the waters off the Suffolk coast are the best place for oil transfers and questioned the assessment process that led to this decision, adding: 'We do not oppose ship-to-ship transfers of oil in principle, but following high profile examples such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we have all learnt that oil spills into the sea are an environmental and tourism disaster.

'If the Government is determined to allow ship-to-ship transfers in our waters, we would insist on a full understanding of the assessment process. In particular we are looking for reassurance that the legislative amendments have sufficiently taken into account the existence of protected sites in the area, and comply with European Law. Furthermore we would call for a water-tight risk assessment process for oil transfers in the area and a comprehensive oil spill contingency plan.

'In essence, we would like to see the same standard of environmental protection applied to Southwold as to harbour authority areas.'

Oil transfers were due to be outlawed by the previous Government but legislation was overturned following an Early Day Motion signed by Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey and Waveney MP Peter Aldous.

Following this month's decision, John Perkins, secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, which had lobbied against the plans, said the whole area would now be 'blighted by constant fear of an oil spill'.

Tim Passmore, chief executive of tourism agency Choose Suffolk, called the decision 'very disappointing' and pledged to monitor the situation closely.