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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oil and Water Mix in the Shetlands

Air Date: Week of

Stephen Beard reports from the Shetland Islands on the Braer tanker disaster. As hosts to one of Europe's largest tanker terminals, Shetlanders have taken strict and successful precautions against spills from their own operations, and they are angry that the regulations did not apply to passing tanker traffic.


CURWOOD: European Community environment and maritime officials will meet in Brussels on January 25th, to discuss strengthening anti-pollution laws and oil tanker regulations. The meeting was called after the wreck of the supertanker Braer, which lost power in a hurricane-force storm and broke up on the rocks in Scotland's Shetland Islands. Virtually all of the 26 million gallons of light crude aboard the ill-fated vessel went into the water, twice as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska in March of 1989. As Stephen Beard reports, the Shetland spill has local residents worried about their future, and British authorities scrambling to mitigate the damage.

(Sound of airport intercom: "British International Airways departure. . ." , fade under )

BEARD: Two miles from the rocks where the tanker ran aground, Sumber Airport has never been busier. The salvage and the cleanup operations have been coordinated here. Helicopters ferried the salvagemen through gale-force winds to monitor the stricken vessel from the air. More than a thousand reporters from around the world have poured into the airport too, arriving to watch what Shetland Councillor Willie Tate says is nothing less than a fight for the island's survival.

TATE: The sea is all-important to the Shetland Islands. It's always been our main indigenous industry. We depend very, very much on the sea, and we depend equally on the land, and both these are being destroyed by this black oil that's coming ashore on the islands.

(Wind noise)

BEARD: Whipped by the wind into a fine spray, the Norwegian crude has soaked the whole of the southern tip of the island. The grass has been turning brown. Many of the sheep that graze on it have been moved inland. Inside the taxi, on the short drive to the coast, you taste oil on your lips. The driver says you can't escape the pungent fumes.

CABBIE: Drivin' around down here, it's been monstrous, that smell in the car has just been ridiculous, of oil and diesel really. And like it's been leavin' a film of oil over the whole car really, and the windscreen and that. Which means it can't, the windscreen wipers just seem to skim over the top of it. Guess it's no wonder the locals are gettin' a bit worried about their health, like, havin' to breath this in the whole time.

(Sound of waves crashing on shore)

BEARD: Quindale Bay has borne the brunt of the pollution. Before the tanker ran aground, just along the coast, the bay was a bird-watchers' paradise: a playground for kittiwakes and shags and eiderducks -- thousands of seabirds nest and breed on the cliffs at nearby Fitful Head. Hundreds of them have now been washed ashore dead or dying. Pete Ellis, Shetland conservation officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, stands at the edge of the bay, surveying a desolate scene.

ELLIS: The sea is just full of oil here, and the foam, and these very, very large waves, it's just horrible really. The only birds you can see at the moment are gulls, which are scavenging dead fish which have been killed by the oil. And it's one of the most picturesque bays, the head of the bay's a mile-long white sandy beach, there's that, green rolling hills in the background, which are all covered in blown oil now, a very light covering. And it's just tragic.

(Sound of heavy surf and wind)

BEARD: Twenty-two miles north, at Scallaway on the west coast of the island, farmer Mary Isbister is anxiously scanning the sea through the rain-lashed windows of her conservatory. A fierce tide has now carried the oil slick past Mary's farm. She's deeply worried about her crops and her livestock.

ISBISTER: We grow all the traditional crops, we keep all the traditional animals. In fact, the real breeds of ducks and geese, there's only two pair of our Shetland this year, there's about six in the whole island. So, we must take great care to keep them in, two nights we've been taking them inside, we're following the slick up the road at the moment, it remains to be seen just how far and how bad it is. But you must take precautions to take them in tonight.

BEARD: Farming, fishing and knitwear are the Shetlands' main source of income, earning the whole group of islands some hundred million pounds a year. Tourism's important as well. During the summer months, visitors outnumber islanders two to one. These industries, says Mary Isbister, have obviously been jeopardized by the oil spill.

ISBISTER: Absolutely, all our industries depend on our clean atmosphere, and so it's devastation. We've always farmed as environmentally-friendly as possible, we've never used chemicals, we do everything with a bit of care. Now, we're absolutely helpless, we can do absolutely nothing about it.

BEARD: Some of the islanders have tried to stave off disaster. There are dozens of salmon farms operating along this coast. Each of the salmon cages contain more than a hundred thousand pounds' worth of fish. In heavy seas, and violent winds, some of the farmers went out in tugs, battling to encircle the cages with protective booms. John Pottinger didn't bother. In his case, he didn't think the booms would work. Here in a pub called the Fisherman's Arms in Scallaway, he sought shelter from the storm and solace as he contemplated what the oil could do to his livelihood.

POTTINGER: The beach is our farm, and it's wiped out. There's no way we can put booms round our farm, it's too rough, it's a very, very exposed site. We have a fairly great overdraft at the bank, and we have passed no guarantees in at the bank, and if the bank forecloses because we can't produce, then we lose everything. I could go bust. If that happens, then I'll lose everything I've worked for the last twenty-five years.

BEARD: The threat to the salmon farms' survival hasn't only been physical. The oil slick has been having a baleful psychological effect on the whole industry.

POTTINGER: Supermarkets have withdrawn certain salmon from the shelves, and that's not only going to apply to Shetland salmon, it's going to apply to shellfish, whitefish, everything -- everything that comes out of the sea is not going to be sellable on the mainland of Britain, or France, or Japan, or whatever. It is a catastrophe.

BEARD: In a bid to reassure fish buyers, the Shetland Fishermen's Association swiftly imposed a ban on the harvesting or the catching of fish within 400 square miles around the tanker. The government says it will do its utmost to insure that every islander who suffers loss is fully compensated. But it's made clear that eventually the polluter must pay. Claims will have to be met largely by insurance companies. The government has played an energetic and highly visible role in the aftermath of the disaster. No fewer than four ministers have flown over the wreck, including the Secretary of State for Transport, John McGregor.

McGREGOR: Well, it's obviously a very tragic situation, and a very distressing one to see. But from the talks I've had already, it's clear that everyone feels that we've pulled out all the stops, everything possible is being done, and the chief executive of the Shetland Town Council has just told me that he's extremely satisfied with the way we've responded.

BEARD: The government has sent out two inquiries: one to consider the movement of all environmentally-hazardous cargoes around the British coast, and the other to investigate the causes of the Braer disaster, whether the ship's crew of Greeks, Poles and Filipinos sailing under the Liberian flag of convenience were to blame -- whether the Shetland Coast Guard responded too slowly or too quickly, leaving the ship to founder on the rocks when it could have been towed to safety. For the islanders, however, the fundamental question is -- why is any oil tanker allowed in storm conditions to sail along Shetland's southern coast, through a channel just 22 miles wide? The Braer, says councillor Willie Tate, should have taken another route.

TATE: It could have gone equally as well along the north coast of Shetland, north of Muckofludder (?), it could have gone round there. Why it had to come south around Shetland and come through this narrow sound, I find it very, very hard to believe why in a force-12 gale, hurricane-force winds, that the skipper took the tanker into this narrow sound. It's one of the worst pieces of water along the British Isles.

BEARD: It's one of the ironies of the Braer disaster that at the northern end of the island, not far from Scallaway, is the largest oil terminal in Europe. It handles millions of tons of North Sea oil a year. It has an excellent safety record: only one minor spill since it opened fourteen years ago. Controls are rigorous because of the island's ecological fragility. Councillor Tate is outraged that these safeguards do not apply to passing traffic.

TATE: I've very, very angry that this sort of thing has got to happen to these beautiful islands. That is utterly deplorable, and I hope that the British Government will try to do anything in its power internationally, that they'll add exclusion zones around certain areas of the British Isles, certain sensitive areas, needs to be protected.

(Surf sounds)

BEARD: The day before the Braer ran aground in high winds and heavy seas, the island made public its plans for a conference in March, the title: 'Managing the Marine Environment.' The brochure's opening paragraph is prophetic: 'Situated at the crossroads of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean,' it reads, 'the Shetland Islands are in a unique geographical position to monitor the destructive impact of man's actions on the sea.'

For Living on Earth, I'm Stephen Beard on the Shetland Islands.



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