Oil rig grounding shows urgent need for an emergency tug in the Western Isles

The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012. Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012.

Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.

John has written to the UK’s new Transport Secretary to repeat his call for the return of an emergency tug to the Western Isles, a need highlighted by the grounding of the Transocean Winner oil rig on Lewis.

The tug Anglian Prince was based at Stornoway until it was axed as part of Westminster cuts in 2012, leaving the Orkney-based Herakles as the only Emergency Towing Vessel covering Scotland’s northern waters.

John said:

“I am grateful that there were no personnel on board the Transocean Winner when it ran aground, and that therefore no-one was hurt. I also want to send my thanks to the Stornoway Coastguard and other responders, who have handled this disaster in tough weather conditions and while also responding to multiple other distress calls.

“However, we cannot yet know what the environmental damage may be, and there can be no guarantee that the next incident will pass without injuries or worse.

“This incident, along with the many others in recent years, demonstrates the urgent need for an emergency tug based in the Western Isles.

“The major inquiry held after the 1993 Braer disaster recommended as a priority that northwestern Scotland be provided with a strong emergency tug, and our seas have only got busier in the intervening three decades.

“Despite this, Westminster cuts abolished the Western Isles tug in 2012, leaving only the Orkney-based Herakles, which could take many hours to reach a vessel in distress in the Minch.

“We are a maritime nation and as such it is government’s responsibility to ensure that our seas and our coast are adequately protected. I’m repeating my call to the UK Government: reinstate the Western Isles tug, before Scotland has to pay the price.

“In the longer term, it’s clear that Scotland itself has to take responsibility for safety in Scottish waters. Our seas are being poorly served by a Westminster government for whom the far north of Scotland might as well be the far end of the world.”

Click here to read John’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP (PDF).

John opposes unfiltered sewage plan for Gairloch

Children playing in the water at Gairloch beach.
Children playing in the water at Gairloch beach.
Photo: Gairloch by Kyle Taylor. CC BY 2.0.
John Finnie has spoken out against Scottish Water plans to remove the filtration system from their waste water treatment works at Gairloch, exposing some of the Highland’s best beaches to high quantities of harmful bacteria.

John has lodged a formal objection with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), urging them not to grant permission for the downgrade.

The proposal to replace the current membrane filter system with simple septic tanks would result in bacteria from human waste, such as E. Coli, being pumped into the Loch. Scottish Water’s own studies show that the bacteria would make the waters and beaches unfit for bathing up to 3 kilometres from the outflow – an area that includes the much-loved beaches at Gairloch and Big Sand.

John said:

Registry Department, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Graesser House, Fodderty Way, Dingwall, IV15 9XB. Thursday 4 August 2016. Dear Sir/Madam,  Fhasaich (Gairloch) Sewage Treatment Works, CAR/L/1002928.  I wish to object to the above application by Scottish Water, which seeks permission to replace the present membrane filtration system with a system of septic tanks.  The applicant describes its proposal as “more sustainable” than the present arrangement, but the accompanying dispersion study demonstrates that it would increase the discharge of faecal coliform in volumes sufficient to render the surrounding beaches unfit for bathing.  Though the beaches at Big Sand and Gairloch are not yet designated bathing waters, they are in fact well-used for swimming and other watersports, and I understand the local community has recently applied for bathing designation. These beaches are important to the local tourist economy, and to the quality of life of local people, and both are well within the 3000m of the outflow within which the Scottish Water dispersal study calculates both the mandatory and guideline standards for designated bathing waters would be breached if the application is granted.  Loch Gairloch boasts two sites on the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s North West Highlands Snorkel Trail, including at Carn Dearg, approximately 1000m from the proposed outflow. At that range the dispersion study calculates the concentration of faecal coliform would exceed the mandatory limit by over 200% (6790/100ml as against a limit of 2000/100ml).  The downgrading of effluent treatment proposed in this application is justified by cost savings alone; there appears to be no suggestion from any party that the proposal represents an improvement in environmental protection.  The greatly increased bacterial pollution that would result from the license variation would be likely to damage the economy of the local area, and the health of both local and tourist users of the Loch. It would also unfairly pre-empt the community’s application for designation as a bathing area.  I believe that these adverse social and economic impacts are more than sufficient to conclude that the application should be denied. Yours sincerely, John Finnie MSP
Click here to read John’s letter of objection to the Gairloch sewage plan (PDF).
“Big Sand was recently voted the best beach in the Highlands, with Gairloch coming in fourth. These beautiful beaches are well-used by tourists and locals alike for swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and other watersports.

“If the proposed downgrade of the sewage works goes ahead, both beaches would be exposed to a volume of dangerous bacteria that would breach the safety limits set for designated bathing areas. This would be particularly unfair given that the community are right now trying to gain designated bathing status for their beaches – this would pre-empt their efforts by spoiling the water before they have a chance to protect it.

“Scottish Water cannot be given permission to endanger the health of bathers, the economy of the community and the quality of life of local people just to save some money. I very much hope that SEPA will recognise the unacceptable cost to the area, and decline this unnecessary and damaging proposal.”

John warns on ship-to-ship oil transfer impact on Moray Firth orcas

SaveOurDolphins_800x450 John has warned the pod of orcas that enchanted Moray Firth ocean-watchers last week could be put at risk if controversial plans to allow ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth are given the go-ahead.

John, who has been campaigning to stop the proposal, pressed the Scottish Government for details of the dangers posed to the orcas by oil transfers. He urged the new Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, to make the Scottish Government’s position clear.

Cromarty Firth Port Authority has applied for a license for the risky ship-to-ship procedure, in which oil is transferred between vessels in the open sea rather than secured in a harbour. The application is presently being considered by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The orca pod, known as the Northern Isles community, migrates between Iceland and the Moray Firth each year. It would be vulnerable to any oil spill in the Firth resulting from ship-to-ship transfer operations.

The Scottish Greens have a strong track record in protecting coastal communities from ship-to-ship plans. A three-year campaign by Green MSPs to halt similar plans in the Firth of Forth ended in victory when Forth Ports PLC dropped their proposal in 2008. John Finnie launched the Save Our Dolphins campaign in response to the Moray Firth plan in January this year; his petition at http://bit.ly/SaveOurDolphins has received over 3,700 signatures.

John said:

“The sighting of these extraordinary animals is a reminder of how precious the environment of the Moray Firth is, both for its wildlife and for its people.

“Oil transfers are already carried out safely in the relative shelter of Nigg harbour; there’s no need to put our Firth in danger with risky ship-to-ship transfers in the open sea.

“I’m trying to find out whether the Scottish Government understands the threat to the orcas and the whole Firth ecosystem. If it does, I hope new Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham will break the silence that her predecessor inexplicably maintained on the issue, and join the opposition to the proposal.

“The Moray Firth is one of Scotland’s most important marine habitats. As well as orcas and our iconic bottlenose dolphins, it is an important area for seabirds, wading birds, seals and otters. It’s a vital fishery and a centre for the production of shellfish. It’s an excellent location for windsurfing, kayaking and other water sports. All that is in danger if we allow oil transfers to go ahead.

“Greens MSPs have beaten ship-to-ship plans once before, in the Firth of Forth. With your help we can do it again: please sign the petition at bit.ly/SaveOurDolphins.”

Save the Gauldrons: John urges alternative site for Kintyre fish hatchery

The Gauldrons by Brendan Campbell, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
The Gauldrons by Brendan Campbell. CC BY-ND 2.0.
John Finnie has urged the fish-farming company Marine Harvest not to site a proposed wrasse hatchery on the environmentally important Gauldrons near Machrihanish on Kintyre, and instead work with the community to find a more suitable local site.

Giving his backing to the local Save the Gauldrons campaign, John welcomed the investment and innovation represented by the project, but said that the proposed site’s great scenic value made it an unacceptable location for the development.

The proposal is a sizeable expansion of an existing project, run by Marine Harvest in partnership with the University of Stirling, that aims to develop the use of wrasse to control sea lice in salmon farms.

The high density of salmon in farms makes the cages ideal breeding ground for the lice, which feed on the living salmon and can completely destroy fins and tails. As the cages are open to the sea, the infestation easily spreads to wild salmon populations in the area. The chemical pesticides used to try to tackle lice also pass into the open sea, damaging local ecosystems.

It is hoped that introducing wrasse, which feed on lice, into the salmon cages could help to control sea lice while reducing the use of chemical pesticides.

The site identified for approximately 20,000 square meters of tanks and other facilities is on the aesthetically important Gauldrons, a coastal grassland that has inspired painters and songwriters, is recognised by Scottish Natural Heritage as an area of outstanding scenic attraction, and has been listed among Scotland’s best coastal walks.

The area also provides a habitat for a great many species including Lapwings, whose numbers have declined dramatically due to land-use changes.

John said:

“The partnership between Marine Harvest and the University of Stirling is a promising one. The use of wrasse instead of chemical pesticides to control lice could reduce the ecological damage caused by salmon farming, and the investment means much-needed jobs for Kintyre.

“However, the environmentally important Gauldrons are an unsuitable site for the development. Sacrificing the tremendous scenic beauty of the area would come at great cost, both to tourism and to the quality of life of the people of Machrihanish.

“I believe that, with sufficient will, we can deliver this project in a way that will secure jobs and investment for the area without giving up precious natural assets like the Gauldrons.”

John Slams Scottish Government Inaction On Ship-To-Ship Oil Transfer


John called on the Scottish Government this week to end its silence over the application for ship to ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth.

Following calls by the SNP MP Ian Blackford for a decision on the application to carry out ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth to be delayed so that the Scottish Government may be consulted, John has expressed his disbelief that Scottish Government was not proactively protecting Scotland’s environment.

Commenting John said:

“The Scottish Government is responsible for protecting Scotland’s environment; that it would not respond to a consultation with severe environmental consequences because it wasn’t directly asked beggars belief.

“Somehow, despite not being directly asked, many ordinary citizens were able to respond to the consultation ran by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, calling for the application to be denied on environmental grounds.

“The Scottish Government should have been well aware of the application; indeed the SNP Leader on Highland Council said ‘I understand from the Scottish Government and one of our MP’s in the SNP that this licence has the support of the SNP government’.

“For the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment Richard Lochhead to keep silent throughout the consultation process and the day after it closed to ask for the decision to be devolved smacks of playground politics. I support all decisions concerning our precious marine environment to be devolved too but that in no way excuses the Cabinet Secretary’s silence.

“Incredibly, the Scottish Government has stated it believes the Cromarty application will transfer the wrong type of oil for it to oppose the application.

“Sadly, rather than protect our interests, it is clear that this call for a delay is simply an attempt to wrong foot the electorate ahead of the Scottish Parliamentary elections, perhaps – as with CalMac and fracking – leaving all the bad news until after May.

“The public have a right to know the Scottish Government’s stance on the application and the SNP should get on with telling us, rather than bleating about how the UK Government dropped the ball by not sending them an embossed invitation.”.



Last week (11th February) John poured scorn on the statement of the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment that the oil proposed for ship-to-ship transfer in the Moray Firth is a different type of oil to that involved when the Cabinet Secretary was a vocal opponent of ship-to-ship transfer in the Firth of Forth.

At General Questions in the Parliament last Thursday, following a question from Dave Thompson MSP on the Scottish Government’s position Cromarty Firth Port Authority’s application for ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Cromarty Firth, Mr Finnie posed a supplementary question to push the Scottish Government on the issue.

In his response Richard Lochhead MSP said: “Unlike the situation with Forth Ports a few years ago, when a different type of oil was being proposed and different circumstances applied”.

Commenting after the question time John said:

“Firstly, I am amazed to discover that Cabinet Secretary believes that the application is merely an “extending an existing activity.” Whilst it’s true to say exchange between ships takes place within the relative safety of the harbour what’s proposed is vastly different and, if granted, would see the transfer of oil between ships on the open saes of the Moray Firth.

“Back in 2007 when it was proposed to carry out oil transfers in the Firth of Forth Richard Lochhead was an outspoken critic of the practice, indeed said “even a scintilla of environmental risk is unacceptable.”

I don’t believe Mr Lochhead’s unacceptable silence on the proposal is in his own back yard, is credibly explained by his astonishing assertion, “ .. a different type of oil was being proposed and different circumstances applied.”

“SNP Councillors in the Highlands are on both sides of this debate and the opportunity existed for the Scottish Government to clarify whether it supported these transfers, and repeatedly it has refused to do so; offering only mealy mouthed platitudes and promises to keep a close eye on proceedings.

“It cannot be the case that what was deemed too risky for the Forth is acceptable for the Moray Firth, unless the Port Authority plans to switch to transferring Cod Liver oil.”

Long wait for Ministers’ answer on shipping rules to protect Scapa Flow

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsJohn Finnie is pressing the Environment Minister for answers on the long-overdue review of ballast water management rules designed to protect Scapa Flow from ecological damage.

Neither Aileen McLeod nor her predecessor as Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse, have made any announcement on the review since Mr Wheelhouse told the Scottish Parliament it was underway almost a year and a half ago.

John said:

“The environment of Scapa Flow and Orkney’s shipping industry are both of huge importance, not only to the Islands but to Scotland as a whole. They can’t be treated as an afterthought or put on the back burner.

“I’m perplexed as to how the Scottish Government review of the ballast water management policy could have taken almost a year and a half, with no updates or explanations along the way.

“Meanwhile, Orcadians are left wondering whether the Minister will ever get round to it.

“I hope the Minister will respond with a clear answer on when the review will be published, so that the many people that rely on a healthy ecosystem and a well-run port at Scapa Flow can stop wondering what’s going on.”

The dumping of ships’ ballast water in sensitive habitats like Scapa Flow is strictly controlled because it can release industrial pollutants from ships, and invasive plant and animal species from their previous destinations, into the local ecosystem.

Under the EU Habitats Directive, the Scottish Government is required to oversee these rules, as Mr Wheelhouse confirmed when he told Holyrood that his officials had begun a review of new ballast water rules proposed by Orkney Islands Council.

In a written answer on 16 July 2014, Mr Wheelhouse said:

“Orkney Islands Council approved a revised Ballast Water Management Policy for Scapa Flow on 10 December 2013. Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the proposals and the need to ensure compliance with European legal requirements. In view of these concerns and Scottish Ministers’ statutory responsibilities, my officials have been reviewing the council’s appropriate assessment to determine whether we are satisfied that the proposals are compliant and, if not, whether or not there is a need to use statutory powers available to ministers in the regulations implementing the EU Habitats Directive.”

In the seventeen months since, no Scottish Government minister has said anything further about the review. Now John has lodged a formal Parliamentary Question to press Ms Campbell to update MSPs and commit to a publication date:

Question S4W-29897: John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 10/02/2016
To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S4W-21880 by Paul Wheelhouse on 16 July 2014, what the conclusions are of its review and whether it plans to publish them.

According to the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, Ms McLeod is expected to reply by Thursday 9 March 2016.