‘Yes’ verdict to oil transfers off our coast

A DECISION to make the stretch of coast off Lowestoft and Southwold the UK's only offshore area for ship-to-ship oil transfers appeared to divide the two towns this week.

From April, tankers waiting to be restocked off the UK coast will be moored exclusively off north Suffolk.

The Department for Transport decision comes just two months after maritime authorities considered putting a stop altogether to the practice of transferring oil at sea, amid fears of the potential for an environmental catastrophe if things ever went wrong.

Last November, the then Labour Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, moved to cease transfers in UK waters. But now, the area of North Sea off the Waveney coast is to become the UK's sole transfer area for more than 50 small tankers that bring oil from Russia before passing their cargo to larger vessels that cannot negotiate the Baltic Sea.

Shipping minister Mike Penning has said that ship-to-ship transfers outside harbour authority areas will be restricted to a single designated area off north Suffolk rather than a general prohibition being put in place.

'Ship-to-ship transfer operations have been common in UK waters for many years ,with a generally excellent safety record,' he said. 'These new regulations aim to strike a balance between supporting those who benefit from such operations and ensuring they are properly monitored and regulated.'

James Reeder, vice-president of the Lowestoft and Waveney Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the news. He said: 'It's good for our local economy in Lowestoft, and it is good that people are looking at ways to increase our business opportunities rather than trying to chase them away. We shouldn't be afraid of risk: we should manage it.

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'If we can make this area the place where everybody goes, then we can have a thriving business opportunity and help Lowestoft, as part of the whole east coast, create jobs and bring more money into the economy.

'The people who are doing ship-to-ship transfers are completely professional: they are world leaders in it. We shouldn't be worried.'

But there are concerns that an oil spill could spell disaster for Waveney beaches. John Perkins, secretary of Southwold and Reydon Society, accused the coalition government of enabling a U-turn in legislation, adding: 'This is the worst possible decision. Far from being moved on, these tankers are now being sent here from all over the UK.

'There have been anything up to 30 ships moored off the coast at one time, and this number is only set to increase. You don't have to be a genius to see that an oil spill could wipe out the entire tourism industry.'

In the past, businesses such as hotels and shops had welcomed the increase in trade from crew members coming ashore. But Mr Perkins fears the local economy will generally suffer and also raised concerns about protection from a potential disaster. He explained: 'The oil booms used to clean up and contain spills are stored inland, at Ely. It would take five hours to get them to shore.'

Southwold town councillor Simon Tobin said: 'I hope that full safety systems are in place and that the oil booms might be better placed, though we understand this may not be sufficient in the event of an oil catastrophe. Further safety measures need to be in place, and the community needs reassurance.'

POSTBOX – Pages 22, 23