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Oil Spill: Poole Harbour

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 27 March.

“I can confirm that at 8 pm 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 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 to 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 honourable 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.”

My Lords, this is an incredibly worrying time for the people whose lives and incomes are affected by this oil spill. It has now been confirmed that oil is ashore and wildlife is affected. Can the Minister advise us on when the infrastructure protecting Poole harbour was last examined for statutory compliance? Can he confirm that his department and the Environment Agency will provide support to restore the sensitive eco balance of the marshlands and harbour?

My Lords, television has shown us the extent of this spill; the oil has clearly mixed with the water in the bay. Two hundred barrels were released, allegedly containing only 20% oil, yet seabirds are being covered in it. This is not the first time such an instance has occurred. The plant is 50 years old. This is an SSSI, a Ramsar site and a European marine site, and the licence for the plant has another 15 years to run. Does the Minister agree that this is not the right environment for such a polluting activity to take place, affecting not only the environment but the bathing water status of Poole harbour?

I thank the noble Baroness for her point, and I agree with her that this is a very serious and worrying spill; I hope it has been contained. A lot of work has been done by a lot of agencies, including the marine coastal agency, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Food Standards Agency—regarding the shellfish produced in Poole harbour—and the local IFCA. The Dorset Local Resilience Forum has also done noble work in galvanising lots of different agencies to resolve this.

I am not aware of the legislation governing Poole Harbour, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, points out, there are overlaying environmental designations; it is a very special area indeed. There is also an enormous amount of human activity, not least that associated with the tourist income for the local area. We want to make sure that we are not only containing this but finding out what caused it and doing everything we can to make sure it does not happen again. The recovery operation has sealed the pipe. It will be replaced and we will monitor the company doing that, which owns this very large facility, and make sure that the polluter is responsible for the damage caused.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, is absolutely right: about 80% of the 200 barrels of pollutant that was released was water. As of this morning, some 20 birds have been found to be affected. It is not known at this stage whether they will recover or will require further treatment, but I very much hope that we have contained the situation.

My Lords, there is likely to be a lot of damage to marine ecosystems in Poole harbour and outside. What remedial action are the Government undertaking or perhaps recommending be undertaken?

Poole harbour is a large expanse of water and this is a significant spill. Booms have been put out, but they will not contain all the pollutant. Other measures have been put in place and the Environment Agency is overseeing the recovery. Repair works will be conducted close to the salt marshes, mud flats and reed beds which are used by a variety of residents and overwintering birds. As the noble Baroness will know, Poole harbour is home to a native population of spiny seahorse, short-snouted seahorse and other rare species, and there is also a mussel fishery and an oyster fishery. We will make sure, working with the Food Standards Agency, that they are safe to eat. We are advising local people to continue to use the beaches but at this stage not to swim there, and we are monitoring the situation. The Environment Agency is in charge of all outreach to local people, and is making sure that we are communicating to them what we are doing by way of recovery and to limit the effects of the spill.

My Lords, will the Minister pass on our congratulations to those who managed to contain the spill? It could have been so much worse. He mentioned potential loss of income to fishermen and tourism businesses. What compensation might they get if there is significant loss in that regard?

Noble work is being done, and I thank my noble friend for pointing that out. There is a very clear line of process for compensation, which is that the polluter should pay. We will assist anyone who feels they have a legitimate case to make in following that process through. However, at this stage it is unclear whether there are significant losses. As I say, we are working with organisations such as the Food Standards Agency to make sure that the food is safe and that people can continue to produce high-quality shellfish from that area.

My Lords, this oil spill is serious, and it is good that the Government are doing all they can to mitigate the effect. However, this oil field has been there for a very long time, and I recall a lot of opposition to any development such as this in such a sensitive site. Is there an argument now for looking at new developments on similarly sensitive sites and saying, “No, we’re not going to do it there under any circumstance”?

We apply very strict environmental conditions to any new applications. I think this site is the largest onshore oil-producing business in Europe and it has been there for quite a long time. We want to make sure that all the supporting infrastructure is in the best possible condition and that this kind of spill does not happen again. For future licensing of this or any other site, huge measures will need to be taken to reassure local people that all measures are in place to protect them and the environment.

My Lords, it is really good to hear that we will have the polluter pays principle, but I can see that being only for specific things such as tourism. What about the FSA and the other agencies that will have to stop doing other work to go to Poole harbour and spend time sorting this out? Will the owners of this oil compensate them for their time?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point, and I am not entirely sure what the precedent is in such circumstances. Undoubtedly, an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent with all the agencies I listed. I will have to reflect on that and talk to colleagues not only in my department but in those responsible for such facilities to see what the precedent is in the circumstances.

My Lords, I chair the Bayelsa State Oil & Environmental Commission, which has been in operation for nearly three and a half years. The greatest pollution in the world is in the Niger Delta, and part of the problem is that some of the oil pipes are 50 years old. Recently, one of the pipes burst and had to be renewed, because if you do not replace them, you are sitting on a timebomb. I am very glad to hear about the principle that the polluter should pay. In the Niger Delta, Shell, BP, Agip and others have not been paying their polluting costs, and two cases are pending at the moment in the Supreme Court here. How can we be sure that the polluter will actually pay—and clean up, as well?

We are working very closely with the company here to get to the bottom of what caused this and make sure it does not happen again. The noble and right reverend Lord raises the issue of this kind of incident taking place on a much larger scale in other parts of the world. There are measures that should be taken through corporate governance to make sure that companies that are polluting are held responsible through clear ESG guidelines. That is a much wider and bigger debate, but I entirely understand the point he makes.

How big is the area covered? Some 20 years ago, down under there was a major spill and they set fire to it. That played a very important part, because it did not cause any problems whatever after it was set fire to.

This is a relatively small part of a quite large, very precious marine and coastal environment, and we think the damage has been contained within that small area. I certainly would not want to see that kind of response. As I said, the leak is about 80% water and 20% oil, and measures are being taken both to contain it and remove it. That will be ongoing, and I am very happy to keep the House informed on the progress made.