Quandary over 'floating time bomb'

AN abandoned boat described as environmental time bomb played havoc on local waterways during the autumn equinox spring tides this week. The Severn Sands dredger had been the subject of on-going discussions between the local authorities and the Maritime

AN abandoned boat described as "environmental time bomb" played havoc on local waterways during the autumn equinox spring tides this week.

The Severn Sands dredger had been the subject of on-going discussions between the local authorities and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for nearly three years after it slipped its original moorings at Fremington Quay in March, 2007.

But on Thursday, they were all left crippled by tides and circumstance as the 500-tonne hulk, drifted into the Taw estuary on the highest tide of the year.

The stricken vessel floated two miles downstream before coming to rest on a sandbank as the waters subsided, sparking a day of intense emergency discussions as North Devon District Council and Devon County Council faced a race against the tide to try and find a solution.

The councils discussed a number of options with various agencies including the MCA, RNLI, Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue, Bideford harbour master, police and Marines at RMB Chivenor. All hit snags and even an idea to tow the boat to safety on Friday night was rejected due to a lack of navigation lights in the estuary. Instead, Appledore shipyard tug Lundy Puffin agreed to attempt to tow the boat to a redundant jetty at Yelland on Saturday morning.

But as the high waters returned that evening, police in Barnstaple were put on standby amid fears the boat could drift further and collide with Barnstaple's downstream bridge.

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As darkness fell, coastguards and crowds of onlookers stood powerlessly on the Tarka Trail as the dredger drifted towards Barnstaple and then turned on the tide and floated perilously close to houseboats near the Tarka Inn at Ashford, before coming to rest alongside the trail at a spot known as Bassets Bridge.

Attempts to tow the boat the following morning were unsuccessful and the vessel has since been beached and secured at the same spot, where it will remain until early October.

A joint agency statement released by the county council said the boat would continue to be monitored closely.

"The preferred option is to refloat the vessel on the next high spring tide in early October. It is then planned to move it to a place where it can be dealt with safely.

"Legal responsibility for the vessel still lies with the current owner and the MCA are in contact with him to seek an acceptable plan to secure the vessel and remove it at the first opportunity.

"If this can't be obtained, the owner will be asked to give up his rights to the vessel to allow agencies to intervene.

"All agencies involved in the incident, including the MCA, Environment Agency, North Devon Council and Devon County Council, will continue to work closely together to ensure a permanent solution is found at the earliest opportunity."

But Fremington county and district councillor Rodney Cann, who has made repeated calls for the boat's removal since 2007, said the authorities had missed a "window of opportunity" and the situation was now more critical than before.

"With the tug available on Saturday morning, they should have sorted it once and for all and put the boat in a safe location," he said.

"They don't seem prepared to take the initiative and I don't understand why they changed their plans to move it to Yelland. Instead, the tug held the boat in situ against the tide and it was shunted onto a bank alongside the Tarka Trail and I am not entirely convinced that it is safe there.

"In fact, I believe that the situation has now worsened as the boat is even more accessible to the public and totally open to vandalism."

North Devon Council leader Des Brailey said the boat was not his council's responsibility but officers had worked tirelessly all weekend to try and resolve the issue.

"Although the district council has no legal jurisdiction to do anything with that boat, we have pushed and fought to try and get the issue resolved over a two year period," he said.

"We recently put �10,000 from our capital programme into a pot to try and solve the problem and are the only authority to do so. We are not the lead on this issue and could have sat and watched. Instead, we have been very proactive and any criticism aimed at the council would be grossly unfair.

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