Islay's Pier of Broken Dreams

Bruichladdich's Managing Director Mark Reynier explains the current situation on oil deliveries at the Bruichladdich Pier, and how it's affecting the continuity of the Whisky Distilleries on Islay:

In the event it took two and a half days to deliver 600 tonnes (we are led to believe) on two off-loading operations Monday and Tuesday late afternoon. That should last about 10 days so the latest crisis has been averted – or is it only postponed? The problem is roughly this: The island now distils 100,000 barrels of whisky a year (which is around 15 million litres of alcohol). To do this it needs a little less than 15m litres of oil to run the stills to create the steam. The tanker that delivers that oil, the Keewhit, can carry a maximum of 1.2m litres. The distilleries therefore need 12 deliveries a year to satisfy the demand. The tanker has a draft of 4.97 metres when fully loaded. But the new depth at the pier head is only four metres at lowest possible tide (excavated from three metres). The tanker can therefore only deliver a full load of oil when there is a spring high tide when the depth is increased by a further 1 metre. Fortunately this occurs 12 times a year. And then there is only 3cms clearance!

However, there are five issues that can affect the deliveries: 1: Weather. Owing to its exposure, if there is any moderate sea state or moderate wind the tanker risks damaging the pier structure – and risks grounding. 2: Depth. The dredged pier head appears to constantly silt up reducing the depth by up to a metre. 3. Tide. The tidal range is only 1 metre and is affected by atmospheric pressure, reducing the depth further. 4. Availability. The Keewhit is a busy tanker and not always available at the right time. 5. Volume. Increased distilling and population means more oil is required. A combination of all of the above has resulted in the series of fuel crises that have dogged the industry since the new pier was commissioned.

With a maximum oil storage capacity at the depot and distilleries combined of about 4 weeks, there is little margin for error. At the time the pier was commissioned in 2004 13.8 million litres of oil was being delivered - 11million litres for the distilleries, 2.8m litres of diesel for cars and farmers. Since then distilleries have increased production requiring an estimated 15m litres of oil bringing the total to 18m litres – or 15 full loads - and there are not enough Spring High Tides. The Keewhit was converted from a single hull tanker to a double hull tanker to meet the new regulations by Gemek shipyard in Turkey. The ship had a draft of five metres at maximum load before the conversion when 120 tonnes of new steel was added. Adding this additional tonnage must have increased the draught of the ship - further compounding the problem. Even at the original 5 metres draft – it is clear that it is touch and go as to whether the tanker is able to deliver a maximum load of oil. In reality it can only deliver a reduced load of around 50%, enough for 10 days, requiring at least 20 and at most around 30 visits a year with each delivery requiring to coincide with both calm conditions and spring tides. This is impossible.

The problem of silting is also making matters worse. So whose to blame for this sorry state of affairs? The oil comes from Shell, the pier is owned by Argyll & Bute Council, the oil is delivered by the Keewhit which is owned by John Whitaker Ltd., Shell own the depot on Islay, and Gleaners distribute the oil around the island. Gleaners blame Shell; Shell blame Argyll and Bute; and Argyll & Bute say that it is not their problem because they have delivered a pier in accordance with the specifications set by Shell. The taxpayer foots the bill. Before the new pier, according to Gleaners, there had never been an oil shortage, but since its arrival there have been three occasions within six months when the depot has run out of oil. At ‘consultation’ meetings accompanying the planning applications the community, supported by marine engineers, argued for a more versatile, environmentally sensitive approach. The Council refused outright to even engage, saying that Shell had already agreed the pier design – and that was that. But did they ever get the owners of Keewhit to agree it, I wonder, as it was already touch and go before the extra weight of the refitting? And did Argyll & Bute factor in an increase in demand for oil? What now? Will Argyll & Bute continue ongoing re-dredging of their pier – even increase the depth further? Or as seems increasingly likely will Shell simply pull out of uneconomic deliveries altogether? In which case, has anyone got a small double-hulled tanker to deliver Black Oil for our White Elephant?

This story was published with kind permission from The Ileach - Community Newspaper of the year.

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