A contingent from Forth Ports today spectacularly failed to answer crucial questions from MSPs on the threat ship to ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth pose to the environment. (1)
The Environment and Rural Development Committee also took evidence from deputy environment minister Sarah Boyack, who has not yet delivered a timescale for tightening up the law despite the fact that a decision on the Forth proposal may be made any day now.
Mark Ruskell MSP, Green speaker on the environment, repeatedly asked representatives from Forth Ports what experts they have consulted on the threat to wildlife, particularly species protected by EU law. They did not answer the question.
Greens also pressed Ms Boyack on what power the Executive has to stop the proposal going ahead. Though the Executive and its advisers SNH can influence the decision, ultimate power on whether or not transfers go ahead lies with Forth Ports – until ministers press on with tightening up the law, which could be achieved through a straightforward amendment to current legislation. Ministers had the opportunity to do this on January 17 when other changes to the EU Habitats Directive were brought forward, but they did not take that opportunity. Greens are now pressing for this to happen as soon as possible. Further, Forth Ports admitted that the job creation potential is small – in the region of 20 to 40 posts.
Following the meeting, Robin Harper, Green Lothians MSP, said, “Forth Ports had to be dragged kicking and screaming to attend this meeting, then, when asked simple questions on how they have assessed the environmental threat, they ducked and dived. This is not how a body with responsibility for protecting the environment on behalf of the public should behave.
“The Executive is also dragging its heels on this, despite the clear sense of urgency from all those opposing the transfers. The proposals could go ahead before ministers have got their act together and tightened up the laws so that publicly elected politicians – not a profit-seeking company – have ultimate power.
“It is obvious that protected species are at risk here, not to mention the livelihoods of communities in the area. Ministers have the power to act, they can also extend those powers by plugging any existing gaps in the law. They must now stop stalling and use their powers in the public interest.”
The campaign has been gathering pace in recent weeks, with Greens revealing results of a campaign hotline which showed significant numbers of marine mammals in the Forth. This data could be used by Executive ministers to block the transfers on the basis that the plan would threaten species and habitats protect by EU law. There are also growing concern regarding the conflict of interest in Forth Ports’ dual role as both regulator of the marine environment and a plc.
Recent sightings of orcas (“killer whales”) have added to the pressure on the Executive to take decisive action and Greens recently secured a commitment from newly appointed deputy environment minister Sarah Boyack to identify and plug gaps in legislation to ensure protected species and habitats are indeed protected – otherwise ministers risk legal censure by Brussels.