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Oil Spill: Poole Harbour

Volume 730: debated on Monday 27 March 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the oil spill in Poole harbour.

I can confirm that at 8 o’clock on Sunday 26 March, the Poole harbour commissioners declared a major incident following an oil spillage of approximately 200 barrels into Poole harbour in Dorset. The spill is understood to be of a product that is 80% saline solution and 20% crude oil. The cause of the spill has been reported as a fault with a land-based pipeline operated by Perenco Oil and Gas. The pipe has since been shut off and depressurised to prevent any further contamination, and booms have been deployed to help contain the spill. Investigations are under way to determine the reason for the fault and to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

This has been designated a tier 2 incident. If it were to escalate to tier 1, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would lead the response, which in Government is under the Department for Transport. However, we consider that unlikely because of the rapid response and deployment of the oil mitigation plan by the harbour commissioners.

The Poole harbour commissioners are leading the response to the oil spill incident and have activated their emergency oil spill response plan. Specialist oil spill response companies are assisting with the operation. The Dorset local resilience forum has convened a strategic co-ordination group to co-ordinate the response to the incident, working closely with the commissioners, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Environment Agency. The current situation appears to be stable. The continuing focus of the strategic co-ordination group is on gathering further data to assess the environmental implications and continue to progress a clean-up operation. To support that, specialist aircraft completed a site assessment this morning and local responders are assessing the shoreline and harbour.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) shares my concern about the impact on wildlife in the area, especially as Poole harbour is a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation. I thank all other Dorset MPs who have been in touch about the issue and have worked on it as a co-ordinated group. The Government are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to do so. The Environment Agency and Natural England will monitor the impact and provide appropriate advice.

Thank you very much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for her statement.

This unfortunate incident has occurred in one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in my constituency. It is not just my constituency that is affected, but those of other Dorset MPs, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), who is here in the Chamber. He has been very supportive and I owe him my thanks.

Having spent many, many years near, in or under the water in Poole harbour, I am acutely aware of the area’s sensitive environment, both on land and under the sea. I am therefore very concerned about this spill, which is potentially catastrophic—and let us not forget the many thousands of humans who enjoy the harbour, especially in the summer. I have been assured this morning that the spill is not as serious as was first thought: the majority of the fluid that leaked from an underground pipeline was contained yesterday, as the Minister said. However, a thin sheen of oil did escape the booms that were put in place, and today a handful of birds have been found covered in oil. Mercifully, that number remains low. The effect on the marine environment is unknown.

This morning I spoke to Perenco, which estimates that nearly 5,000 litres of fluid leaked from the pipeline. The fluid is 15% crude oil and 85% water. The leaking underground pipe is located in a very sensitive, marshy, low-lying area in the south of the harbour. The contamination was exacerbated by a high tide and a river that runs through the site into the harbour. A large operation to combat the spill using helicopters, drones, and vessel and onshore patrols continues today. Specialist clean-up companies have been called in to give advice, and that operation will start as soon as possible.

May I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that, as is paramount, the regulator conducts a full investigation into why the leak occurred and, once the cause has been identified, to make certain that any repairs are carried out to the highest standard? Will she also seek assurances from Perenco that the rest of its network is being properly maintained and checked? We do not want this ever to happen again.

I thank my hon. Friend for the assiduity with which he has dealt with this incident, which, as he has said, occurred in an extremely important nature and wildlife area that is recognised across the world and is a very sensitive site.

I give him an absolute assurance that a full investigation is under way. It is critical for that investigation to be carried out so that we can have the full details of what occurred—exactly where the leak started and exactly which bit of the pipeline was involved—and also the full details of how we should react in future and what will need to be done about cleaning up. The pipe has been shut off and depressurised to prevent any further discharges. I also give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I, as the Minister, will be following the investigation very closely to ensure that all the correct procedures are carried out, so that that can inform what we do in future when it comes to regulation and the regulators.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for asking it. In a sense, it is good not to be talking about sewage discharges today, but this oil spill is far too serious a matter for political points to be made about it, so I will confine myself, in the limited time available to me, to highlighting the worries and concerns of local people and businesses in the Poole area.

I realise it is still early days for the investigation, but I hope that it will be thorough and speedy, and that any lessons to be learned will be published and acted on as quickly as possible. We do not want this to happen again and to blight another coastal community. Can the Minister enlarge on her previous responses and, in particular, tell us what work the Department and the Environment Agency are undertaking together to address the impact that this incident could have on the local population and environment in Dorset, not just on the site but in the surrounding area? What are the Government doing to assess the impact on small businesses which rely on the harbour for trade, and what support will be made available to them? Will the Minister confirm that the relevant agencies will have all the support that they need to address this incident, including manpower?

Poole harbour commissioners’ latest oil spill contingency plan appears to be dated July 2021, although the review date was August 2022. Can the Minister confirm that that is the latest version, and that the review was carried out in 2022? If so, what was the outcome?

I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the importance of this incident, and for focusing on it specifically. We are taking it extremely seriously. The investigation is under way, and all the right protocols are in place. The Poole harbour commissioners have activated their emergency oil spill response plan, and specialist oil spill companies are assisting the operation. The Dorset local resilience forum has already set up and convened its strategic co-ordination group involving all the relevant bodies, including the commissioners themselves, but also the Environment Agency and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Each of those is contributing its input, as is Natural England, which has set up its south-west environment team to do its own work. All that will feed in the details that we need to ensure that all the necessary measures are taken and we can understand exactly what has occurred. I give the hon. Lady an assurance that the harbour remains open as usual, the ferry service is working and the local beaches are open, although as a precaution the public have been told to avoid using the water in Poole harbour for recreational purposes until further updates are available.

I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) in the comments he has made. The harbour commissioners have, of course, planned for this sort of thing over the years and are constantly updating their plans. The latest information is that 60% to 70% of the oil that was on the surface yesterday has been reduced, so we are well on top of the situation.

Clearly, the incident has an impact on public confidence, which is why we need an inquiry to look at it. This is a mature field that has been producing for more than 40 years, and some of the pipes might need replacing. Secondly, if the ability of fishermen and companies in Poole harbour to export seafood to France is temporarily suspended, my colleagues and I might wish to talk to the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) about compensation.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has been doing on this. He is right to say that it is about giving assurances, which is why it is critical that this investigation is undertaken fully and in all the right ways. As he says, the oilfield has been worked since 1979 and this is the first such incident that has occurred, but it must be dealt with extremely seriously. I believe that that is happening, with all the right teams being brought to bear to give us the information and assurances that we need. People should follow the advice of the UK Health Security Agency on eating seafood, and I will relay my hon. Friend’s comments to the Fisheries Minister, who will be in touch if necessary.

Poole harbour, from the Arne bird sanctuary through to Brownsea island, is nature-rich. Bearing that in mind, and in light of the age of the infrastructure, can the Minister say when it was last examined for safety compliance to avoid such incidents occurring?

I agree that it is a wonderful and sensitive wildlife site, famous for its incredible birds, including terns, avocets and even gulls, as well as its red squirrels on Brownsea island. A full regime to check pipework and so forth is run through the regulator, but all the records, including the maintenance records, will be looked at in the investigation.

Tourism is an important part of the county’s economy, and public confidence in using water for recreational purposes is pivotal to that offer, allowing people to visit the countryside in North Dorset and elsewhere in the county. Will my hon. Friend say what further work the agencies will be doing to monitor sea bathing quality, and what her Department and the Tourism Minister can do with Dorset Council and others to ensure that the message that Dorset is safe to swim in and visit is seen across the country?

My hon. Friend is right to mention Dorset’s phenomenal tourism offer, both for people from this country and abroad. That is why the investigation and the messaging are so important, and the public must adhere to the UK Health Security Agency guidance. At the moment, the local resilience forum has not issued any concerns about the impact on tourism, but this will be kept under guidance.

My hon. Friend should take confidence from the standing environment group set up by Natural England and the involvement of all the environment non-governmental organisations. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is already saying that it believes this is being well handled and well dealt with. We do not want any wildlife to be impacted, so every precaution needs to be taken. I have heard that, so far, just two sea birds have been found with oil on them, and they have been carefully washed off—a fantastic process that I witnessed myself when I was an environment reporter. We need to ensure that we know fully what is happening, through the investigation, so that there are no adverse impacts on tourism, which is such an important industry to this country.

I thank the Minister for her diligent approach to responding to this troubling occurrence, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on bringing it to the House’s attention.

I am sure the Minister will agree that not only is there an ecological price to pay for this spillage but, as has been mentioned, there will be an impact on the potential bathing water status of Poole harbour. Does she agree that bathing water status is an important tool in ratcheting up water quality, both on our coasts and in our rivers and lakes? Will she reflect on the fact that, last year, only 10% of applications for bathing water status for our rivers, lakes and coastal areas were accepted? In my constituency, Coniston Water and the River Kent were turned down, despite having many more bathers than some rivers that were accepted. Does she agree that consistency is important if we are to keep our waterways free of oil and sewage, and will she look again at the applications that were turned down?

Unlike the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who stuck to the subject of this important urgent question, the hon. Gentleman asks a question that is somewhat irrelevant. Well over 70% of our bathing water is excellent, and more than 90% is rated good or excellent.

As a number of Members have said, not least my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the Dorset coast forms part of an incredibly fragile ecosystem across much of the south coast. Part of its fragility and uniqueness is because it is fed by a network of chalk streams—80% of the world’s chalk streams are in our part of the world. In January, the River Anton, which flows through my constituency, saw a not dissimilar spill of 30,000 litres of oil. I commend the Environment Agency for its swift response: it tells me that it has recovered about 17,000 litres and that work is under way to recover the rest. Although there will be an investigation into the cause of the spill and any culpability, which may have consequences, where does accountability and transparency lie in the Environment Agency for the conduct of the investigation? Police and crime commissioners are accountable to police and crime panels for the work of the police, but the system for the Environment Agency is more opaque. How can my constituents have confidence that any investigation is conducted with alacrity and that culpability is apportioned appropriately?

An investigation is important for gathering the correct information. We also need to be careful about spreading fear about what exactly a pollutant might be. That is why there must be an investigation, and why the exact make-up of a pollutant needs to be fully known. The EA will, of course, investigate if there is enough evidence to suggest that a crime has potentially been committed. Where a crime has been committed, and after the due process is followed, fines are possible.

While cleaning up the incident is the priority, what lessons can the Government learn about the wisdom of allowing future drilling on environmentally important sites, such as the Rosebank site, which goes through a marine protected area? We need to learn lessons from such incidents. Will the Minister assure me that she will speak to her colleagues?

I would be the first Minister to say that we need assurances on looking after our wonderful environmentally sensitive sites. This oilfield has been working since 1979, and I understand it is the largest onshore oilfield in Europe. The investigation must take place and we must find out what happened—and correct anything that needs correcting—but we should not spread fear about this particular operation or others like it, as they are an important part of our energy make-up.

Poole harbour is a haven for wildlife and is home to rare species, so this spill is incredibly saddening. The Minister says she wants to ensure the disaster is not repeated, but she must know that where there is drilling, there is some spilling. There have been a staggering 721 oil spills in the North sea alone over the past three years. Just last month, the Planning Inspectorate overturned West Sussex County Council’s refusal of permission for more testing for shale oil reserves in Balcombe, beneath the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty. Given the huge risk to the natural world when things go wrong, will she ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to review this decision?

It is all about balance—it is important that we protect our natural environment, particularly in areas as precious as Poole Harbour, because that is as important to our economy as the oil—and ensuring that the investigation is correctly carried out as swiftly as possible. Anything that needs to be put in place to enhance our environmental protections and measures must be put in place—and I would say the same for any other similar project.

I was a little surprised that the Minister could not answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) about who is responsible for regulating the facility—perhaps she has the answer on a piece of paper—and when it was last inspected. If she does not know and cannot get the answer from her officials before the end of this urgent question, perhaps she could provide the House with a written statement.

I did say that all the maintenance records and dates will be assessed. If the right hon. Gentleman wants me to write to him when we know the exact detail, I assure him that I will do so. All that detail is absolutely critical to the investigation.

I thank the Minister very much for her diligence and clear commitment to address the oil spill at Poole. When we had a spill in one of our local rivers back home, environmental work was carried out immediately with local conservation bodies to replenish the wildlife. The outstanding Poole wildfowlers association is active in the area. Will the Minister confirm that Natural England and EA have expertise—I say that gracefully and respectfully—in conservation efforts and can undertake not only to remove the oil but to restore the eco-balance as soon as possible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the importance of the environment and conservation of the area. In addition to the investigation that is under way, Natural England has already set up a standing environment group, and has brought in environmental groups that have great knowledge and that run many wonderful nature reserves, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is doing its bit. A shoreline clean-up team is gathering data on shore and in boats right now so that we know exactly what is happening. All that will be fed into the investigation.