Private Notice Question. - Kowloon Bridge Casualty.

asked the Minister for Communications if he is aware of the abandonment of the removal of 1,200 tonnes of oil from the Kowloon Bridge and if he will immediately arrange for the resumption of the offloading of oil in view of the imminent disintegration of the vessel and the threat a spillage of oil could pose for local fisheries and tourist interests and the environment.

asked the Minister for the Communications if he will outline the procedure he now intends to adopt with the owners of the Kowloon Bridge and their insurers, the P & I Club, to ensure that the 1,200 tonnes of oil in the tanks of the vessel is removed immediately to minimise the threat of serious damage to the main fisheries and tourism stretches of our coastline in south-west Cork, in view of the changed circumstances over the last 24 hours.

When it became clear that efforts to remove the wreck of the Kowloon Bridge from the Stags were of no avail, I issued a direction on 29 November 1986 to the owners, agents, managers, insurers and the captain of the vessel under the Oil Pollution of the Sea (Amendment) Act, 1977, which directed them:

For the purposes of preventing, mitigating or eliminating the effects of oil pollution on the coastline of Ireland and related interests arising from the maritime casualty to the ship Kowloon Bridge, port of registry Hong Kong, official number 360117, forthwith in a manner acceptable to the Minister to unload and take to a safe place for disposal all oil of any description on board the ship.

Late yesterday afternoon when I became aware that the contract with the salvors, Smit Tak, had been terminated by the insurers, the P & I Club, I immediately made known to the insurers, the owners and their agents my serious concern about this development because of the danger of major harmful consequences through pollution by oil from the Kowloon Bridge to the coastline of Ireland and related interests. I have now sought their immediate assurance that they will comply with the terms of the direction and requested that I be informed of what steps they now propose to take to comply with the direction. I am awaiting their reply before considering what further action I may take.

In view of the change of attitude by the insurance company involved in cancelling the salvage opertions for the removal of the oil and ordering the tug on standby to leave the scene of the disaster, is the Minister fully satisfied that the company and their agents will pursue operations for removing all this oil, thereby preserving our fish and birdlife along the south-west coast?

I am satisfied that given the atrocious weather conditions in the south-west since the accident involving the Kowloon Bridge, every reasonable effort has been made by the owners and their agents to remove the wreck and its oil. In the last day or two a diver almost lost his life in his efforts to remove the oil from the ship. I do not think we can reasonably complain that there have not been any real efforts made by the owners or their agents to remove the oil. Nevertheless we are left with a tricky situation, with a ship under the sea and oil escaping, thereby creating a danger of pollution. As I understand it, we would need a forecast of a number of days good weather before efforts could be recommenced to take the oil off the ship.

Would the Minister elaborate on the press statement released by the Government Information Office yesterday evening that the operation had been suspended due to bad weather? Today he stood in the House and said the contract was cancelled, he has contacted the insurers and is awaiting their reply. How come there is such a difference in the two statements?

There is no difference in the statements. The difference is in the Deputy's ability to understand the reply. The salvage operation has been cancelled for the time being because, I assume, the insurers felt there was not much sense paying very substanial fees to the salvors who will be standing by because of inclement weather for perhaps days. My understanding is that the salvage operation will be resumed as soon as the forecast indicates clement weather for at least a few days.

The Minister's assumptions and understandings have been held for a number of weeks now, and the local people are very concerned about the environmental time bomb with oil leaking from the vessel, which is disintegrating.

A question, please.

Has the Minister given specific instructions to the owners and the insurers to take the oil off that wreck before the coastline and the livelihood of the people in the area are ruined?

I am sure the House and I share the concern of the local people and have from day one, but the fact is that we have exercised all powers at our disposal by issuing directives under the 1977 Act. The insurers have indicated that they accept full legal liability and I do not know what more we can do. Perhaps I might ask the Deputy if he or any of the other critics could suggest anything we should have done but which we did not do.

The vessel could have been boarded while it was drifting for 14 hours. All this time the Minister was considering, looking into the matter and reviewing it. This was an absolute scandal.

Is the Deputy suggesting that I should have acted in breach of all professional and technical advice of the Navy, the Air Corps and the marine surveyors of my Department and jeopardise life? Is that what the Deputy is suggesting?

I am suggesting that it was totally irresponsible of the Minister to allow the vessel to meander around the area without a skipper——

Is the Deputy suggesting I should have risked lives?

——or a rudder and no action being taken.

What action does the Deputy suggest could have been taken when the Air Corps said helicopters could not safely land people on the ship and the Navy said the same? The crew had been taken off the ship for safety reasons. At least we can say that not one life was lost because of the expeditious way in which this matter was handled.

The local fishermen were crafty enough to be able to get on that vessel.

I will allow the Fianna Fáil spokesman to ask a question. Two local Deputies have asked questions, one from each side, and I am calling Deputy Wilson now.

In view of the fact that Ireland is one of the 14 countries which are signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control, did the Minister not have power to have detain the ship because of the danger of pollution if the ship ran aground or the leak deterioriated?

The answer is a clear and categorical no. In 1906 the then Parliament at Westminster decided to amend the 1984 Merchant Shipping Act specificaly to exempt from powers of detention ships which came to port because of what is called force majeure, in other words, ships which came to port in distress because of weather or other conditions. That amendment was introduced because of the number of lives lost at sea because of ships' fear of detention by coming into a port of refuge during a storm. That section was specifically inserted to save lives. Whatever can be said about this casualty, the handling of it has saved lives. This Kowloon Bridge casualty went in parallel with the threatened casualty of the Capo Emma which represented a much greater danger to our coastline than the Kowloon Bridge does even at present. That crisis has passed. All the oil has been discharged and has left our territory.

Does the Minister deny that the right of the Irish authorities to detain foreign vessels——

I am not allowing any further questions.

——considered unseaworthy or in danger of causing marine oil pollution is recognised by this international agreement? Is the Minister denying that that is so?

I am advised that the position that obtains in the 1906 Act is the prevailing rule of law in this country and in many other countries, including the United Kingdom.

Does the memorandum of understanding which Ireland signed give the Minister no power at all?

My advice is that I have no legal power to detain a foreign ship in distress.

The Minister is not referring to the memorandum.

I have answered the question as fully as I can.

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the serious overcrowding and unhealthy conditions at Gorey Christian Brothers national school.

I will communicate with the Deputy.