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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Nov 1986

Vol. 370 No. 2

Private Notice Questions. - Kowloon Bridge Casualty.

asked the Minister for Communications the exact terms of the report on the Kowloon Bridge which he received from his officials; the action he now proposes to take; the reason he did not detain the ship in Bantry Bay considering the forecast of force 11 gales, considering the amount of fuel on board and the adjacency of the herring spawning grounds, the shellfish industry and the ecological and environment dangers to the beautiful coastal areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Communications if he will make a statement on the Kowloon Bridge affair indicating clearly whether the situation which has arisen could have been avoided; the status of the advice given to the ship's commanding officer and whether the Government could have forbidden the sailing of the Kowloon Bridge thereby avoiding the major threat to this country's environment and economy.

asked the Minister for Communications if he will order a public inquiry into the circumstances in which the Kowloon Bridge was permitted to leave Bantry Bay last week while apparently unseaworthy and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Communications why steps were not taken to prevent the Kowloon Bridge putting out to sea when adverse weather conditions were forecast with foreseeable consequences, in view of the ship's cargo, for the local environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The M. V. Kowloon Bridge put into Bantry Bay on Tuesday 18 November having sustained damage from heavy seas on a voyage from Canada to the United Kingdom. A marine surveyor from my Department travelled immediately to Bantry, boarded and inspected the vessel on the following day. On Thursday the vessel was also inspected by representatives of Lloyds Register of Shipping, London, and by a surveyor of the United Kingdom Department of Transport acting on behalf of the authorities of Hong Kong where the ship is registered.

Following inspection the Department's surveyor, on Friday, agreed certain temporary repairs with the Lloyds representatives as necessary to make the ship seaworthy. He then instructed the master that the vessel must not put to sea until all the deficiencies had been rectified. The ship remained at Bantry Bay until Saturday 22 November, I understand that, on that day, while within Bantry Bay, the master reported that the ship had lost her anchor. It appears that, in this situation, the master decided, for safety reasons, to steam out of the bay under the vessel's own power. I understand this was done with the approval of Lloyds Register whose representative informed my Department surveyor accordingly on Saturday night.

On my instructions a preliminary inquiry has been instituted into the circumstances surrounding the casualty. The question of the form and nature of any further investigation will be decided in the light of this inquiry. Pending the report of the inquiry it would not be appropriate for me to offer any further comment on the matter.

The question of ecological and environmental consideration is being dealt with by the Minister for the Environment in reply to a separate question.

I understood from the Minister that orders were given that temporary repairs should be carried out. To his knowledge were those repairs carried out or were they not?

My understanding is that the repairs were not carried out. I understand the captain was endeavouring to have those repairs carried out when he lost anchor on Saturday.

Can the Minister state why he did not order the ship to remain in the bay until the repairs deemed necessary by his officials had been completed?

The power I have in relation to ordering the detention of ships is quite different in the case of what is called force majeure, in other words ships that are forced by virtue of the weather alone into a port of a country. The powers in relation to such ships are very limited compared with ships that are destined for a port of the State. That was the circumstance in this case.

Arising from the Minister's reply, has he or his Department authority to forbid the ship leaving the port until such time as repairs are carried out? If so, how is that authority carried out? Am I right in assuming that in this case it was not put into effect? What action follows from that? Is legal action of any form against the master of the ship or otherwise a possibility? What kind of implication is there to the Minister saying that the ship could be so forbidden?

It would be helpful if I explained to the House that the surveying of ships is a very frequent occurrence. Where faults are found on the ship which would deem it risky to take it to sea, the surveyors require that those repairs are done before it takes to sea. In almost every single case in the history of my Department that request was followed. Detention orders are very rare indeed. However, the circumstances in this case are even rarer because this was not a case of a ship coming to a port of the State. It was a case of force majeure where a ship was forced into the territory of the State by the fact of the weather. This is covered by section 6 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1906.

Will the Minister elaborate a little on the detention order which he referred to which he possibly could have issued in this case? Was that a possibility and, if so, was consideration given to it? If consideration was given to it, why was it decided not to do so in this case? The order would forbid the ship from going on the high seas regardless of the reasons, the rationale or the arbitrary decision of the captain of the ship to do so.

First, I will repeat what I said. The surveyor of my Department acted with great promptitude. By 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday morning he had informed Lloyds Register in London and also the UK Department of Transport who were acting on behalf of the Hong Kong authorities. Their representatives arrived in Bantry on Wednesday afternoon. The surveyor was in Bantry principally to deal with the Capo Emma, a ship which is still there and which was of much greater risk to the coastline than the ship in question because it was laden with oil. The surveyor was mainly preoccupied with the danger of the Capo Emma but nonetheless he acted with great promptitude in this case. He visited the ship on Wednesday and told the captain that it should not take to sea until there had been an inspection. An inspection took place and a further inspection took place on Thursday in conjunction with the representatives of the UK Department of Transport and Lloyds Register. On Friday it was agreed that certain repairs should be done before the ship went to sea. Unfortunately, on Saturday, in what I understand was extremely inclement weather, this ship broke anchor. The master of the ship made a judgement that it was safer to take the ship to sea. He made this decision in conjunction and with the approval of the representative of Lloyds Register. Their representative so informed the surveyor of my Department.

As I said in reply to previous questions, the issuing of detention orders are extremely rare. In the memory of the chief surveyor of my Department who has served there 30 years, only two such detention orders have ever been issued. Ships do not take to sea without undertaking repairs that are requested of them. In this case the repairs were requested of them. It seems the master of the ship made reasonable endeavours to have those repairs undertaken until he lost anchor.

In view of what the Minister has said so far in relation to this question, can he indicate that he or his Department were not aware that the ship was moving out of Bantry Bay? Lloyds were told that his Ministry was not informed. If that is the case, and I suspect it is, was the master of the ship acting in breach of Irish law in taking a ship which was unsafe out to sea, particularly in view of the fact that it was acknowledged that accurate weather forecsts were available which indicated that it would be far more dangerous at sea than in Bantry Bay?

It would be wrong to say that there had been no discussions with my Department. The captain adverted to his problems during Saturday and the surveyor in my Department told him that as far as he was concerned the order to have the repairs carried out still stood. The captain intimated that he might have to take to sea as the lesser of two evils. The surveyor in my Department indicated that while the captain would have to make this decision himself he reiterated the ruling of the Department and suggested that the captain should not make the decision to go to sea unless it was a last resort. He again reiterated the view of the Department that repairs should be done before going to sea.

Did the ruling of the Department in relation to the repairs specify that the captain should not put to sea until those repairs were carried out?

Can I ask the Minister whether the provisions of the Brussels Convention of 1969, the international convention relating to oil pollution on the high seas, were scrutinised to see what powers the State possessed to take remedial action? Can the Minister say, when the ship was unmanned, rudderless and abandoned almost 20 miles from our coast, whether the precedent offered by British action in relation to the Torrey Canyon in 1969 was studied? The Minister will recall that the British authorities destroyed that vessel in 1969 pleading necessity. When this ship was 20 miles off our shore, was the destruction of the vessel and its sinking considered? Its sinking would have afforded no damage to the local environment at that stage.

All the relevant factors were considered in the circumstances that arose late on Saturday night and on Sunday. I can assure the Deputy that, given all the circumstances and the fact that it was Sunday, every possible consideration was given and every possible servant of the State was contacted for their advice in the cirsumstances, including the scenario the Deputy raised.

Will the Minister not agree that a precedent in the British action was offered to us, that while the ship was about 20 miles from shore its sinking at that stage would not have threatened the environment, as now imminent? Will the Minister say whether his officials considered that possibility?

I have already indicated that that scenario was raised and considered. It would have been very imprudent of us to take such action without having full details of the toxicity of the cargo involved. It took us a long time to be able to establish that because of difficulties in contacting the owners of the ship directly and also the British people to whom the cargo was destined.

Will the Minister agree that the Lloyds report which stated that the ship showed damage such as a ship would suffer in a force 11 gale crossing the Atlantic was a very bland and unhelpful one and not calculated to give much information? Will he also agree that his surveyor, who only had experience of two detention orders in 30 years, now agrees that the shipping scene has changed considerably, with larger ships, smaller crews and without the laws and regulations that obtain for Irish sailors and Irish ships? Will he state furthermore what he is doing now to protect the economic and the amenity interests in that area?

I do not think the Deputy's point about Lloyds Register is a considered point. That is certainly not a judgment that we should rush to. I am quite sure that everybody in these circumstances were being as helpful as they could be. I do not think there is any sense in us rushing to judgment on that or any other aspect of this case. When incidents like this arise of course we will consider whether the existing law is adequate or not to cover these circumstances or whether a change in the law is called for. I will give this matter my attention as soon as the immediate crisis is over.

In relation to the economic consequences of this action my Department, in the course of Sunday morning, telegraphed the owners indicating that all costs, economic, tourist, ecological, environmental and administrative, that would arise as a result of this casualty would fall on them. That telegram has been followed up by a letter in similar vein from the Chief State Solicitor.

Were we signatories to the Brussels International Convention of 1969? Have the provisions of that convention been examined to see what further action is within our grasp?

I do not have the specific information to hand but I presume we were signatories. The EC Commission have been kept fully informed of developments and, indeed, sent a representative to help deal with this.

I am calling Deputy Wilson next and we will move on to the next question then. We cannot debate this issue all day.

The Chair should give a Corkman an opportunity to ask a question.

Will the Minister indicate what the Government are doing in these circumstances because a sister ship with structural faults disappeared in the South China Sea? The ship under discussion was seen by the Minister's officials to be damaged and they stated that it should not go out to sea. What is the Minister, and the Government, doing in that area for the protection of our interests? I am not referring to the sending of telegrams. What do the Government intend to do with regard to the structural deficiencies of this type of ship built by a specific firm in the north east of England particularly when one of these ships sank with two Irish citizens on board in the South China Sea? No satisfaction has been given by the British Government with regard to that ship up to now.

The point raised by the Deputy has caused some concern in international maritime circles and is one of the reasons the marine survey office was so alert when they heard that the ship was in Bantry Bay and acted so expeditiously on Wednesday morning last. However, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the findings of the preliminary sworn inquiry now taking place.

Will the Chair permit me to put a question? I am a Cork representative.

There are a number of Cork Deputies, including members of the Deputy's party, but I will not allow any more questions.

asked the Minister for the Environment if he will indicate measures which are being taken to prevent damage to marine life and other pollution arising from the Kowloon Bridge, now aground off County Cork.

Since the arrival of the Kowloon Bridge in Bantry Bay on Tuesday, 18 November, Cork County Council have continuously monitored developments and initiated contingency arrangements to deal with any oil leakage from the vessel or from the Capo Emma which is still in the bay.

My Department have also been concerned about an possible leakage and has liaised closely with the council's pollution office during the course of the incident, in addition to conducting aerial surveillance of the area. A senior inspector from my Department, who is also the director of the national response team for major oil pollution incidents — the operations group — visited the area on Wednesday last and has been present there on a fulltime basis since Friday. Given the double threat of oil pollution, the operations group, which includes experts from the Departments of Communications, Tourism, Fisheries and Forestry, Defence, the Naval Service, and local and harbour authorities, was placed on alert by my Department.

In view of the seriously increased threat of oil pollution following the abandonment of the Kowloon Bridge by its crew, the intervention of the operations group was formally requested by the Cork County Manager on Sunday last. The group has established an operations centre in Skibbereen and is working with local officials in the determination and implementation of pollution control measures. Expertise available from the EC Commission has been drawn on for this purpose. A contingency plan has been prepared to protect areas of high priority to the east and west of the grounding point of the Kowloon Bridge at the Stags Rocks. Priority areas include Lough Hyne and other agriculture areas to the east. The views of fisheries experts have been taken into account in determining the priority areas to be protected. Boom will be used to deflect oil from some of these areas.

The operations group has decided not to use dispersants as these would be ineffective on the heavy fuel oil aboard the vessel. Local authority personnel are on standby to deal with any oil that may come ashore.

I am informed that the oil leakage which commenced yesterday morning is from two tanks which are estimated to contain a total of 500 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. I understand that sea conditions in the area have assisted in the dissipation of the oil. However, a small amount of oil has now come ashore at Owenahincha and Cork County Council personnel are being deployed to collect this.

Some concern has also been expressed about the possible environmental and ecological implications in the event of the cargo of iron are being released to the sea. Analytical data on the chemical composition of the iron ore has been obtained and examined by the Departments concerned and advice has also been obtained under the EC information system for sea pollution incidents involving oil or other possible harmful substances. I am advised that the ore does not pose a threat of any significance to the environment or to marine life.

The condition of the ship is being closely monitored by the operations group and I am keeping in close touch with the situation. I can assure the House that, in so far as it lies within my area of responsibility, all possible steps will be taken and all necessary resources will be deployed to protect marine life and the environment from any damage arising from the grounding of the Kowloon Bridge.

I should like to thank the Minister for his detailed reply. Will he indicate if any steps are being taken, or if any is possible, to prevent the further break up of the ship? Have the Department any say in regard to that or have they taken any steps to try to prevent it? Will the Minister indicate if he has any method of recouping any costs that may arise in the clean-up of the pollution? Is he aware if the insurers or the owners will be liable for the cost of that clean-up?

In relation to the Deputy's several questions I should like to state that the possibility of any salvage operations being attempted is, I gather, being explored by the relevant authorities. I visited the scene of the accident this morning and I noted that a tug at the scene had a line aboard the ship. Whether it will be possible to move the ship from the site is something about which I would not care to speculate at this time. On the question of an estimate of the cost of containing damage through pollution I should like to say that I do not consider that to be important now. The important thing is to ensure that all possible steps are taken to minimise any effect of pollution. The cost can be obtained afterwards and should not become a factor in ensuring that every possible step is taken to minimise the threat or danger of pollution or the steps taken to deal with pollution as it occurs. In so far as any possible liability is concerned in regard to the insurers or the owners I should like to point out that that is a matter that will have to be established subsequently. I would not like to say anything which might prejudice that.

Will the Minister ensure that all necessary funds are made available by the Government to Cork County Council to ensure that the environment along the Cork coastline, and its tourist facilities, will be safeguarded? Will he ensure that if any damage is done there will be a speedy clean-up?

Officers from my Department, and from the operations group, have been on the site since last Wednesday and all possible steps are being taken. Some of the areas which are of the greatest concern to marine life have already been boomed. The Deputy, and the House, may take it that no expense will be spared, whether by Cork County Council or by the State, in ensuring that all possible measures to minimise the risk of pollution or the effect of any pollution that may occur are put into place. I should mention that the local authority concerned, because of other factors, are probably the best fitted local authority with the greatest experience and expertise to deal with matters of marine pollution.

I am proud to be a member of that local authority. I am the only member of that authority in the House and I acknowledge the Minister's appreciation of what Cork County Council have to do and have done on other occasions. In view of the fact that a harbour board for Bantry was set up during the term of office of the Government but has not yet a secretary, an office or a typewriter, will the Government acknowledge that the authority for Bantry Harbour should be Cork County Council? I ask the Minister to ensure that this authority, to which the Minister has so graciously paid tribute, should now be made the authority for Bantry Harbour. This is relevant.

This question is about immediate action. Matters of staffing are more appropriate to a Department with which I had a previous association than to this one.

The Minister indicated that his main concern is to prevent pollution. That is the concern of all of us in this instance. In what way are his Department involved with the prevention of that pollution, apart from dealing with it if it occurs? In what way are the Department trying to prevent that pollution? Are they involved with the salvage tug that is alongside? Are steps being taken to try to drain the fuel oil from the ship or is there some other way in which this pollution can be prevented?

In view of the situation as it obtains, obviously the best possible way if weather conditions abated would be to have the ship reboarded and her bunker oil pumped out or removed to another vessel. That is a matter for evaluation by the experts. I visited the site this morning and there is a ship of the Naval Service, together with helicopters from the Air Corps and a tug with a line on board standing by the ship. There must be an evaluation made of the effects of attempting to move the ship from the precarious position in which she is now, but it would be presumptuous of me or any other Deputy in the House to decide what ought to be done when there are experts on the site. In addition, the House should be alive to the fact that the Government have a dual concern in this regard. A further ship containing 80,000 tonnes of crude oil is at present at anchor in Bantry Bay, and every care must be taken to ensure that that situation is attended to with the removal of any threat of pollution in that case also.