Long wait for rustbucket ban

IT could be more than six months before dangerous vessels which it is feared could cause oil slicks and ruin Suffolk's beaches will be banned from sailing.

By Richard Cornwell

IT could be more than six months before dangerous vessels which it is feared could cause oil slicks and ruin Suffolk's beaches will be banned from sailing.

And while conservationists say that is not good enough and immediate action should be taken, it could yet get worse – because opposition to the ban is already gathering and may well scupper the plans.

The Evening Star launched its Stop the Black Death campaign last month amid growing public concern over the risk posed by rust-bucket tankers going up and down the North Sea – timebombs waiting to spill their deadly cargoes.

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In a recent incident, 300 seabirds were killed and another 600 left stricken and covered with oil after a spill off the county's coast.

Despite investigations by the Maritime Coastguard Agency, the polluter was not found. There was speculation that it could have been a vessel flushing its tanks illegally at sea or oil from the ruptured tanks of a sunken wartime wreck. Tankers travel up and down the Suffolk coast every day, taking oil to northern Europe but also to refineries at Harwich.

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The EC has announced moves to stop heavy grades of oils being carried by single-hull tankers but major oil companies say this could pose serious problems for the industry.

It could cut the oil supply to Europe because there would not be enough other tankers to transport the cargoes.

The European Commission drew up its plans to ban single-hull tankers from carrying heavy oils, those which cause most pollution damage, after the Prestige broke up off Spain, spilling 20,000 gallons.

That oil devastated the coast in Spain and now remnants of it are starting to wash ashore in France.

The EC scheme is not expected to come into force until the second half of this year, but is now clear that the measure will face attempted amendments before it is implemented.

Oil companies are asking their supporters to try to have the ban just for the heaviest oils, and possibly waste oil, bitumen, crude and tar. They also want a revision to the scheme to phase out older tankers so that they can operate for much longer, and changes to plans to improve inspection of vessels.

EU transport commissioner Loyola de Palacio is backing the plan.

"Words are not enough: it is necessary to act and apply the maritime safety measures in full. Safety is the responsibility of everyone, and strict application of all the measures is the only way of ensuring that substandard ships do not fall through the safety net," she said.

The EC has drawn up a blacklist of 66 "very dangerous" substandard ships, which would be banned by now if governments had acted more quickly to introduce the latest EU maritime safety measures – eight of them oil tankers.

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