Calls have been made for a review of the arrangements as fears rise over a lack of enforcement and protection in Scottish waters because jurisdiction for foreign drilling vessels and rigs serving the oil and gas and growing offshore wind farm industries lies overseas.
Local concerns have surfaced into one incident that threatened a “disaster” near the Hunterston B nuclear plant two years ago which were led by the authorities in the Republic of the Marshall Islands – over 8000 miles away. The probe came after the 748ft long drill ship Valaris DS4 with eight crew aboard broke from its mooring and began to drift without power amidst high winds.
Locals told the Herald on Sunday at the time it was only a “miracle” that prevented this from being “an absolute catastrophe with multiple loss of life” near the Hunterston B nuclear plant.
It emerged that authorities in the Republic of the Marshall Islands investigated found that was a mooring failure and made a list of recommendations, without, it said, apportioning blame or liability.
But it raised concerns that there was a “lack of comprehensive flag state regulations intended to ensure the safety and security” of laid-up vessels in ports and harbours.
They also found a lack of requirements for Marshall Islands-registered vessels in lay-up to undergo inspections or other types of oversight to ensure they do not pose a safety or security hazard.
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It found an absence of port regulations intended to ensure the safety of security of ships laid up in ports and harbours in the UK.
It found there was “inadequate” identification and consideration of local conditions including higher than forecast winds.
Concerns have been raised that there appeared no framework to ensure the investigation conclusions were enforced in the UK.
Further concerns have surfaced after it emerged the investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a worker in the North Sea was being led by authorities in Liberia over 5000 miles away.
Jason Thomas, 50, from Wales, went missing at around 9pm on January 22 while the Valaris 121 jack-up platform – which was being used to service offshore wind turbines – was being towed around 98 miles east of Aberdeen.
The Health and Safety Executive stepped in after the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) raised concerns of a “vacuum of regulatory cover”.
HSE, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) all previously said they were not launching formal investigations.
The MAIB and MCA indicated that as the vessel was not UK-registered and the incident took place in international waters – beyond 12 nautical miles to sea – they would not launch formal enquiries.
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Drill ships are used for exploring new oil and gas wells, and have been repurposed for the wind farm sector and for other scientific investigations.
But the MCA which is responsible for implementing British and international maritime law and safety policy admit they do not have primacy in many investigations involving vessels based overseas.
They say they only become involved if the circumstances are shown to be connected to safety related issues on board.
East Lothian MP and Alba Party deputy leader Kenny MacAskill and RMT regional organiser Jake Molloy are pushing for clear definitions on what the UK is in control of.
Mr MacAskill said that it was “unacceptable” for Liberia to lead on an investigation and that there is a lack of consistent and effective offshore safety legislation affecting thousands of workers in the offshore energy supply chain across Scotland and the UK.
He says the way the maritime sector deals with incidents is putting lives at risk.
He said: “We have the absurdity of responsibility for an investigation and jurisdiction in enforcement for an incident leading to the death of a UK worker resting not with Police or Crown, Health and Safety Executive or the MCA.
“Or even with an organisation based in Aberdeen or Dundee, Edinburgh or London but in the flag state.. a country located on another continent.
“The issue of the absence of health and safety rights goes far wider than simply this incident or this vessel. It goes to the very heart of how the new sector that we’re transitioning to operates.”
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One Fairlie community councillor David Telford, who raised concerns about safety issues regarding Valaris DS4 in early 2021 before the ‘near disaster” near the nuclear plant said he was not happy about the investigation taking place in the Marshall Islands and was concerned about enforcement.
“It is an absolute disgrace that this incident was passed over to the flag country and not carried out directly here. It happened in this country for God’s sake. “The same malaise seems to exist in the enforcement of the recommendations made.”
Concerns were first raised after the huge Valaris DS4 and DS8 drillships arrived in the narrow waters between the mainland and the Isle of Cumbrae at the end of 2020.
In August, 2020, Valaris Plc, the largest offshore drilling and well drilling company in the world, with the world’s largest fleet, became a casualty of the global slump in oil prices, filing for bankruptcy as it sought to restructure roughly $7 billion in debt. It emerged a year later after a restructuring, the debt was eliminated.
When the drilling vessels arrived at Hunterston, there was concern that they were being ‘dumped’ on Scotland and Fairlie Community Council in its warning on safety feared there would be “no prospective work for these vessels in the near future.”
After the incident Peel Ports, which is responsible for the former coal-handling port site indicated at the time that there was to be a panel of inquiry.
During the incident a second ship moored at the terminal also required assistance and was held in position by tug boats.
An MCA spokesman said that with the Valaris DS4 incident it was the Marshall Islands which carried out the investigation and “further actions are down to them”.
They said Peel Ports was recommended in the Marshall Islands investigation report to put together guidance for the planning and conducting of vessel lay-ups in ports in the UK.
“The MCA has been asked to consider publishing that guidance nationally in conjunction with the Port Marine Safety Code Steering Group,” said a spokesman.
The HSE was approached for comment.