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MSC Napoli

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, this statement is to update the House on the events leading to the beaching of the MSC Napoli at Lyme bay, east of Sidmouth. It follows my earlier written statement to the House on 25 January.

During severe weather conditions on the morning of 18 January, the MSC Napoli, a UK-registered vessel, suffered flooding in her engine room on the French side of the English channel. The MSC Napoli’s master took the decision that the danger to the vessel was sufficient to order the crew to abandon the ship. All the crew were successfully rescued by UK helicopter from royal naval air station Culdrose. The marine accident investigation branch is carrying out a full investigation into the causes of the structural damage.

The English channel is a zone of joint responsibility between France and the UK as regards maritime pollution incidents. There is an Anglo-French joint maritime contingency plan, which is usually referred to as the Mancheplan. The French and English authorities were faced with a large container ship known to be carrying a cargo that included potentially hazardous materials and to have more than 3,500 tonnes of fuel oil on board. Particular account had to be taken of the strong advice from environmental experts that the ship’s cargo and oil would need to be recovered and should not be left to sink in deep water. The effects of sinking in deep water would have been serious long-term environmental damage. In the first instance, there would be the strong possibility of a large release of oil and spreading of the cargo caused by the trauma of the vessel striking the seabed. In any case, the oil would have escaped and found its way on to many beaches on both sides of the English channel for many years, whereas in shallow waters the hydrocarbons and other pollutants could be recovered as soon as possible.

In line with the Mancheplan, French authorities led the initial response to the incident, liaising closely throughout with the UK Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention—commonly known as SOSREP. French tugs arrived on the scene promptly. A French Government intervention team went on board the vessel. Having made an on-scene assessment of its condition, experts concluded that its state was such that it was unlikely to survive prolonged exposure to severe weather conditions. To prevent a serious marine pollution incident, the French and UK authorities decided that the vessel should be towed to a place of refuge where she could be dealt with in a controlled manner. The need for a place of refuge and its location are always driven by the circumstances of an incident, including the weather, the size and condition of the vessel and the potential threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. Taking all those factors into account, the French authorities were unable to identify a suitable place of refuge on the French coast within about 200 miles.

All other options were on the UK south coast from Falmouth to Portland. A full risk assessment was carried out to determine a location providing best shelter and chance of survival to offload oil and hazardous cargo. None of the main ports, including Falmouth and Plymouth, had sufficient depth of water. The Falmouth harbour-master reported that the vessel could have anchored outside the harbour, but that Falmouth could not handle or store containers. Moreover, transit to Falmouth, because of the direction of travel and the state of the sea, would have exposed the casualty to severe stress. There was no safe option to enter any south coast port.

An anchorage with good shelter from south-west winds was needed. The most suitable option was Portland because it affords shelter combined with good access to port facilities and, later, the potential for moving the ship into the inner harbour. It also meant that the vessel could be towed in a direction that minimised the stress on its hull. A tow was attached on the evening of 18 January. However, in the early hours of 20 January, the cracks on both sides of the ship worsened and the stern of the ship started settling lower in the water. It became clear that the MSC Napoli would not reach Portland. The priority was to keep the vessel intact, as there was real concern that it might start to break up.

That concern was urgent and a decision had to be taken without delay. In accordance with the UK’s national contingency plan, environmental groups and local authorities were consulted. Moreover, through forward planning, which is an integral part of the UK system, SOSREP had the necessary knowledge about the suitability of locations as a place of refuge for this vessel. SOSREP decided that the only viable option was to beach the ship in shallow water, where there was a greater chance of successful salvage, and decided to turn the vessel towards an identified beaching site in the shelter of Lyme bay. SOSREP regularly updated me throughout the incident.

A small amount of fuel oil leaked during efforts to beach the ship and a boom was deployed to contain the leak. Booms were placed across the rivers Brit and Axe to help prevent oil entering. A relatively small amount of oil has leaked from the MSC Napoli since it was beached. On 24 January, 10 tonnes of oil leaked from an air pipe on the vessel and was sprayed with dispersant. Two French oil recovery ships remain on scene. An offshore boom is available and additional workboats carrying oil dispersants are in the area. There are daily aerial surveillance flights.

The MSC Napoli was carrying approximately 2,300 containers, of which 157 contained potentially hazardous materials, including perfume, pesticides and batteries. The contents of all containers have now been identified. Altogether, 103 containers were lost overboard, 57 of which were washed ashore, and we are searching for the other 46. Sampling of sediments and marine wildlife in the area began on Tuesday. As of Tuesday, 900 live oiled birds had been handed to the RSPCA, while 700 had been found dead.

Salvors were engaged at a very early stage in the incident. It was necessary for some work vessels and equipment to be brought from Rotterdam and these were despatched at the earliest possible opportunity. Work on removing the Napoli’s bunker oil is continuing apace. About 2,600 tonnes of bunker fuel have been removed. The salvors are averaging 20 tonnes per hour and we expect to have removed most of the remaining fuel by the end of Sunday.

The process of removing containers from the MSC Napoli is also underway. As more containers are removed, the stress on the ship’s hull decreases, as does the risk of break-up. A crane barge is removing containers and passing them to a container barge that can take them ashore. Every precaution is being taken to ensure safety. It is expected that the removal of all the cargo will take between five to eight months to complete.

As of 4 pm yesterday, 70 containers had been removed and we expect to move more at a rate of around 30 containers a day. The bad weather that hampered operations initially has now subsided and the current forecast is calm weather for the weekend. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been liaising with the local fishing community to ensure that the route of the barge does not cross any deployed fishing equipment. Once all containers are removed, the ship itself will be salvaged. It is impossible to predict the challenges faced by the salvors. At worst, the entire operation—pumping out the oil, lifting off the cargo and removing the ship itself—could take 12 months. However, every effort will be made to bring this incident to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.

Volunteers have offered help to the MCA and local authorities. While we appreciate these offers, we are strongly urging members of the public, for health and safety reasons, not to join the clean-up operation. We have all seen footage of people removing items from the beach. As a result, the beach at Branscombe was fenced off and made secure. Because substantial progress was made with the removal of the litter from the beach, Branscombe beach, west has now been opened to the public and regular patrols are in place to ensure the quick recovery of any washed-up goods. Local police have contingency arrangements in place to prevent a recurrence of last week’s behaviour.

SOSREP is continuing to lead the response to the incident. Our thanks are due to that representative and all those working with him to bring the incident to the safest and swiftest conclusion practicable with the minimum possible impact on the environment. SOSREP’s decision in respect of a place of refuge and the salvage operation was entirely transparent and thoroughly professional.

It is worth recording that the European Commision’s senior maritime official, Fotis Karamitsos, last week endorsed our SOSREP system, which he regards as a model for other EU states. He supported SOSREP’s decision to beach the MSC Napoli rather than tow it to port as originally planned, because it

“diminished the risk of catastrophe”.

I receive daily reports on the situation from SOSREP. I am reassured that the national contingency plan has enabled us to take prompt and appropriate action. I am pleased to see the co-operation between SOSREP and all the parties concerned, including the French authorities. This incident has once again demonstrated why the UK’s SOSREP arrangement is so much admired by our international colleagues.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to see an advance copy of his statement. He has taken a close personal interest in this matter from the beginning. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) whose commitment as the constituency MP has been exemplary.

The House should congratulate the French authorities, SOSREP, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Environment Agency, and, above all, the men and women of royal naval squadron 771, who bravely took on mountainous waves and gale force winds to save the 26 crew members. The rescue exemplified the highest standards of the Royal Navy. It was executed amid waves higher than the helicopter itself. When we see press reports stating that the men and women involved may be given a bravery award, I want to ask the Minister whether he really believes that such courage and commitment should be rewarded by handing over Britain’s elite RAF and royal naval search and rescue operations to a private finance initiative, with uniformed people just embedded in it.

Moving on to the vessel itself, once the marine accident investigation branch has finished its inquiry, we will need to know how it was that a ship given a clean bill of health in Antwerp only five days before, almost cracked down the middle off the coast of Devon. Indeed, it appears that there have been concerns about this vessel since it ran aground on a reef in the Malacca straits six years ago.

Had the Napoli been out in the Atlantic when her sides cracked open, the main story might not have been the looters at the bay, but the tragic death of 26 seafarers. Yet this was a British registered vessel. It was our duty as the flag state to make sure she was seaworthy. The inquiry must answer questions about that. Can the Minister also reassure the House that the British coastguard carries out sufficient port state control inspections of foreign flagged vessels visiting UK ports, as is our duty under the Paris memorandum of understanding?

Do we know yet whether there is evidence to suggest that human error played any part in the accident? Last year, Steve Allum of Aon Global Marine—one of the world’s specialists in marine risk—warned that, due to the employment of under-trained but considerably cheaper crews,

“the possibility of human error is significantly higher and will inevitably lead to increased accidents”.

A ship crewed by people from eastern Europe, the Philippines, Turkey and India must surely have suffered from language problems and possibly training problems, too. Will that be investigated?

Although the beaching of the vessel at the world heritage site of Lyme bay caused understandable and widespread concern—indeed, dismay—this was, as the Minister says, the only feasible place to shelter the boat. The worst outcome would have been for the vessel to have sunk in the open sea. In its fragile state, had it been towed away, it would have had to face the gale side on and would almost certainly have broken up—with horrendous environmental consequences.

Nevertheless, the ship has offloaded significant hazards into the sea. Will the Minister say something about containers that may still be floating at sea? It is good to hear that most of the rest of the fuel will be cleared by Sunday, but is there an estimate of the extent of the residue?

Mercifully, we have heard reports of only 1,500 oiled birds and 600 corpses so far. That is modest in view of the potential scale of the damage. I salute the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA for their efforts. Has the Minister commissioned an environmental impact assessment on the marine environment, especially the Lyme bay coral reefs and bird life?

May I urge, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon did before, revisiting our ancient salvage laws? Surely earlier action could have been taken against the unacceptable looting, which rightly caused so much public disgust.

I end where I began in congratulating the Royal Navy and all the various agencies, French as well as British, on a magnificent rescue and a successful damage limitation and clean-up operation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive comments and join him in congratulating the RAF crew. I agree that they were magnificent in the way in which they carried out the rescue under difficult circumstances. It required huge bravery.

The hon. Gentleman went on to ask whether we should examine the organisation of air-sea rescue and whether it was appropriate to include it in a PFI. That is a continuing process, on which we are working with the Ministry of Defence and the RAF. The RAF will be an integral part of any future arrangements that we might devise. However, we have a duty to ensure that services are cost-effective. I guarantee that there will be no compromise on safety or the service that air-sea rescue offers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned other issues, several of which related to the possible causes of the accident. I am sure that he understands that I cannot speculate on that. The marine accident investigation branch will carry out an independent study, as it always does into all marine incidents, publish its report and place it in the public domain. Its investigation is unfettered and will identify the cause of the accident. If it could have been addressed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, that information will be put in the public domain and appropriate action will be taken.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman agreed that Lyme bay was the only appropriate place to beach the vessel. By doing that, we avoided a much worse environmental catastrophe. Although I appreciate that local people are distressed, I hope that they are reassured that beaching the ship on Lyme bay was better than the alternatives.

There is an on-going search for the remaining containers. We suspect that the vast majority sank around the boat and sonar investigations are trying to identify them. There was a report of a container afloat further down the coast and that was investigated. Many reports are coming in of goods at various points along the coast but most turn out not to relate to the incident. I assure the hon. Gentleman that every effort is being made to identify floating containers, especially when they might be a hazard to shipping.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the salvage laws. When we conduct a wash-up on the matter, we will decide whether we need to reconsider laws but, at the moment, I feel—I put it no more strongly—that the laws existed and people had powers but did not understand that sufficiently quickly. Perhaps we can learn from that.

May I also thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement and echo other hon. Members’ sentiments about the role of the RAF? As has been said, the catastrophe could have been much greater.

Has the Minister read the interview in today’s Western Morning News with Robin Middleton, who is the Government’s representative in the area? He states that the cargo ship has fractured completely. If that is the case, what assessment has been made of the effects of further pollution in the event of the vessel giving way entirely? The local fishing associations are worried about that.

We have a rule that the polluter pays, but second-order issues, such as costs incurred by local authorities, have been raised with me. Will the Minister assure us that all those costs will be met once the incident is sorted out?

Concern has rightly been expressed about Lyme bay and its ecological importance. Does the Minister agree that the provisions of a marine Bill would have given the bay greater protection? Does not the incident make the case for identifying known refuge areas? Perhaps that would have prevented Lyme bay from being affected to such an extent. Will the Minister confirm that the MAIB’s terms of reference for its inquiry into the Napoli incident include consideration of that? I understand the points that have been made about the conditions and the reasons for choosing Lyme bay, but I am sure that the Minister understands local concerns about the effects of that. Will the report therefore consider whether alternative ports could have been used? Will the MAIB investigation hold hearings in public?

Does the Minister know that, three days before the Napoli was grounded, Devon county council asked for better protection of its coastline? Will he meet councillors and local Members of Parliament to discuss what can be done better to protect it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive comments. I am afraid that the Western Morning News is not normally served with my breakfast.

Clearly, I shall have to put that right in future. I have not read the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred but I have spoken to SOSREP since he gave the interview, and he was concerned that some of his comments might be taken out of context. I believe that he was trying to explain to the journalist that the vessel had suffered significant damage and that there was a risk of further break-up. Consequently, he appropriately put together several contingency plans based on what might happen under those circumstances. One hopes that they will not be necessary. Every time a container is taken off the ship, the stress on it becomes less and the likelihood of break-up or further damage is reduced. I hope that we can get through the process without further major spillage. If we can get all the oil off by the end of Sunday, the risk of serious oil pollution is minimal. Plans are therefore in place if the worst happens, but that is not expected at the moment.

Local authorities should make an appropriate claim through the civil courts for the recovery of their costs. We will support them in that. We have spoken to the owners’ representative and been informed of their views. They are being constructive and helpful and do not appear to penny-pinch in any way. I am therefore confident that we can resolve everybody’s claims satisfactorily.

A marine Bill would have made no difference to the incident. Such a measure would not alter SOSREP’s decisions in such circumstances. When SOSREP is faced with the possibility of environmental catastrophe if a ship is allowed to sink in deep water, he has to take account of myriad things. Of course, he will consider the environmental sensitivity of a particular area, and weigh up whether less sensitive areas are an option. Ultimately, however, he must make sure that the vessel can either be put into a harbour safely or beached safely. A marine Bill would not have made any difference, and nor would any other device that Devon county council has been asking for to protect that stretch of coastline. By taking action we have protected the coastline, as the area would have suffered from pollution for many years to come had the vessel been allowed to sink at sea.

May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as the convenor of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group?

The House is now aware that the vessel was British-flagged and that it was grounded in 2001. Is the Minister also aware that maritime unions have blacklisted the company that owns the vessel because of its operations, standards and practices? May I suggest that it is now a matter of urgency that we look again at how British flagging procedures secure the health and safety of working practices on British-flagged vessels?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern over the issue. He and the unions with which he often works have made representations to me about the issue previously. I can tell him—perhaps I should also have said this in response to the question from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen)—that the MAIB investigation will consider all the factors that contributed to the event. If it turns out that the management, crewing or communication among the crew of the vessel was responsible, or that the MCA could have done something better to prevent the incident, that will emerge in the findings, which will be published in the accident report. I assure my hon. Friend that action will then be taken.

As the local Member of Parliament, may I pay tribute to the excellence of the contractors working around the clock on the beach in Branscombe who have already removed 50 tonnes of scrap metal and have 100 tonnes to go? The Minister is absolutely right: it should be said loudly and clearly that Branscombe is open for business. I urge Members to come and see that for themselves during their Easter and summer holidays. It is a great place, and they would get a warm welcome.

Given the principle that the polluter pays, to whom should my constituents make claims if they have suffered loss of bookings? Whom does the Minister think would make up the shortfall, if there is any, both in the short and the longer term?

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has represented constituents and for his constructive approach to the issue. None of us would have liked this type of accident in our constituency, and he could have been forgiven for getting angry about it, but he has not done so; he has dealt with it professionally and appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the contractors and to say that Branscombe is open for business. I understand that the vessel is something of a tourist attraction at the moment, and I have no doubt that the businesses of Branscombe are cashing in on that. In the spring and summer, I hope that people throughout the country will continue to take their holidays and visit there, and I hope that many Members of the House do so too. When the risk of pollution has passed, I hope that the sight of the vessel offshore will act as a tourist attraction to bring more people to the village.

If anyone has any difficulty in understanding to whom they need to make an appropriate claim, they should, of course, take advice. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss such issues on behalf of his constituents in future, I would be happy to meet him to ensure that everybody knows exactly what they need to do.

The Minister rightly praised the RAF and the coastguard, but he was remiss in not congratulating the salvors who are working 24 hours a day. But for their fantastic work, the disaster in Lyme bay would have been much worse.

Given the history of the vessel, why was it not taken into Falmouth or Plymouth? If that action had been taken, rather than going past Torbay and the entire length of the Jurassic coast to get to Portland, the vessel would never have had to be beached.

The vessel did not go to those ports because the direction of travel of the wind and tides at the time was such that the assessment was made that it would not reach them. As I said in my initial statement, there is no provision at Falmouth for the offloading of containers even had the vessel managed to reach there. The decision taken was appropriate. Such matters are always judgment calls. There will always be people who, with the benefit of hindsight, say that the vessel could have gone here or there. The man in command must make the decision in a short space of time, however, and he must do what he thinks is best. That is what SOSREP did, and I am afraid that we must back him when he does that.

On the salvors, I did thank SOSREP and his team. Indeed, his wider team consisted of much more than salvors: it included environmentalists, the owners’ representative, people who were brought in from the MCA, and others who were brought in to make recommendations on tides and the inventory of the cargo so that we knew exactly what we were dealing with. It has been a real team effort, and the salvors have been very professional.

I should also particularly thank the French authorities. The French Minister, Monsieur Dominique Perben, telephoned me the next morning to thank us for our efforts. He has continued to make resources available to us for the rescue, and we have had a further conversation since then. The resolution of the issue has been a good example of teamwork not only in SOSREP’s team but internationally.

May I thank the Minister for the effective way in which he has kept my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), me and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) informed about the matter? I visited the beaches affected in West Dorset last week, and I was delighted to see that they have all been properly cleared, as well as being impressed by the people doing that work.

I gather, however, that about 20 per cent. of the oil remains to be taken off the vessel. The Minister will be aware that a fairly large number of oiled birds have been beached, particularly in Abbotsbury in my constituency. I hear that that oil has been taken off by a hot-tapping procedure. Does he feel that it will be removed from the vessel without further environmental damage to the east in my constituency?

Again, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive attitude. He will be aware that, at one point, we thought that his constituency would have the benefit of the vessel. He faced up to that with equanimity, and I can tell his hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) that he did not tell SOSREP to move it down the coast; that decision was taken entirely by SOSREP.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has visited the site: I am glad that it is now being cleaned up, and we need to keep it that way. As one of his colleagues has suggested that Ministers have not visited the site, let me put on record that I visited the salvage operation team on Monday, and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare visited an RSPCA site to see the operation to clean up the birds. We made those visits privately, so that we did not create a media scrum and detract from the real work going on. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there have been a number of oiled birds, but that is always the case. Although the number has increased, it has not done so dramatically, but any further damage must be dealt with.

On the issue of hot-tapping, the oil remaining on the vessel is in a difficult tank to reach. The process is slow, and the oil is very cold and thick, so it must be warmed up before it can be removed. I am as confident as I can be that it will all be safely removed by the end of the weekend. Of course, things can go wrong, but, thankfully, it looks like the weather will be okay. Once all the oil is off the vessel, I think that we will be able to say that there will be no serious environmental consequences as a result of the incident.