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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 19:15 GMT
Oil rig home to rare coral

BS Brent Spar was occupied by Greenpeace

Destroying old oil platforms in the North Sea has damaging consequences for coral, say two UK scientists.

The researchers examined the controversial Brent Spar storage facility when it was being decommissioned and say they found large quantities of healthy coral growing on the structure.

Marine biologists Niall Bell and Jan Smith work for Cordah Environmental Management Consultants, Aberdeen, UK, who were called in to advise on the disposal of Brent Spar. They believe the quantity and type of coral found on the metal and concrete structure raises serious questions about how best to decommission platforms.

The 135m-high, 16,000-tonne Brent Spar was chopped up for scrap with some of it being used to build the foundations for a new ferry terminal.

When the facility was dismantled, the researchers were sent coral samples from the sides and bottom of the platform. They found large quantities of Lophelia pertusa, which is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Bell and Smith say there are other documented cases of apparently healthy Lophelia colonies growing on North Sea oil platforms. Their own investigations show that the species can grow at a rate of 26 millimetres a year, slightly quicker than was previously thought.

Implications for debate

Niall Bell told BBC News Online that the species needs something hard to grow on, which is rare in the North Sea.

"Oil rigs, which provide a firm base, have enabled it, in certain circumstances, to establish itself and grow."

The scientists feel that the discovery has implications for the debate over oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean and the perceived benefits of onshore dismantling of deep-water platforms.

"In certain circumstances, it may be more sensible to leave the footings of large structures in place," said Niall Bell. "Such an option would preserve existing colonies and might allow Lophelia to spread in the North Sea."

For 15 years the Brent Spar, a floating structure made largely of concrete and steel, served as a crude oil storage tank and loading buoy. It was decommissioned in 1991, and in April 1995, Greenpeace campaigners clambered aboard the Spar as she lay at anchor off Shetland.

After three months of mounting protest, and despite the support of the British government, Shell announced that it was not going to sink the Spar as planned but recycle it.

'No justification'

Greenpeace has criticised the Bell and Smith research, which is reported in the journal Nature.

The environmental lobby group argues that the two marine biologists make the mistake of assuming that the Lophelia coral itself is endangered when it is in fact the reefs it forms that is under threat.

And it attacks the notion that the presence of coral polyps on rigs may require a change in the non-dumping of decommissioned rigs.

"If I was to dump a car in a wood, moss would grow on it, and if I was lucky a bird may even nest in it. But this is not justification to fill our forests with disused cars," said Greenpeace campaigner Simon Reddy.

Greenpeace is concerned about the impact on sea-floor sediments from the discharges that come from oil platforms. These are likely to be extremely toxic to Lophelia reefs and the diversity of species occupying them.

Sedimentation and contact with toxic cuttings cannot be assumed to occur in the same way for species on the sides of oil installations as those on the sea floor directly below or downstream of oil production activities, it says.

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See also:
25 Nov 99 |  UK
BBC apologises to Greenpeace
25 Nov 98 |  Sci/Tech
Brent Spar's long saga
26 Aug 98 |  Europe
Final resting place for Brent Spar
25 Nov 98 |  Europe
Brent Spar gets chop

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