SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:22 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 7:22 pm, 3rd July 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to mitigate the risks posed by the wreck of SS Richard Montgomery.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, in February last year City Airport was closed while a 500-kilogram unexploded World War II bomb was made safe. This short debate is about a much larger volume of unexploded and highly dangerous munitions that has been in shallow water in the Medway channel near Sheerness for 75 years. I am grateful to Professor David Alexander of University College London for briefing me extensively on this matter.

The SS “Richard Montgomery” was built in 1943 by the St Johns River Shipbuilding Company of Jacksonville, Florida, which built 82 Liberty ships for the US Government over three years. The emphasis was on speed rather than quality—after all, there was a war on—and the ships were regarded as expendable. Her construction time was just 137 days—not bad for a vessel 4.5 times the length of your Lordships’ Chamber. The hull plating was welded rather than riveted, so was more susceptible to cracking, and the low-grade steel used becomes brittle in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The ships were not built to last, and indeed the SS “Richard Montgomery” did not. After several trips across the Atlantic, in August 1944 she was loaded with 6,225 tonnes of high-explosive bombs and detonators and arrived in the Thames estuary. The King’s harbourmaster—actually based in Southend—instructed her to moor at Sheerness middle sands in about 10 metres of water. This was unwise, as the vessel had a draught of 9.45 metres and a very full cargo.

On Sunday 20 August there was a force 8 gale. The ship dragged her anchor and ran aground. As the tide ebbed, her plates began to buckle and crack. Not surprisingly, given the cargo, the captain and his crew took to the lifeboats. On 24 August one of the holds was breached, and two weeks later the ship’s back broke. Extensive salvage efforts took place over the next month, and most of the ammunition from two of the five holds was removed, until the operations were abandoned as it became too dangerous to continue. It no doubt helped that the Admiralty had ruled that the stevedores concerned should not receive danger money.

Since then the wreck has remained essentially untouched, with its masts protruding above the surface, 2.4 kilometres from Sheerness and its population of 11,000. Three to five kilometres to the south-west is the Isle of Grain, with its oil-fired power station, four storage tanks for liquefied natural gas—each the size of the Royal Albert Hall—and another 18 oil storage tanks. It is situated less than 200 metres from a busy shipping lane.

So how much explosive remains on the wreck? In its most recent report, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency says there are 1,400 tonnes of explosives contained in the forward holds. However, this is in conflict with the ship’s original cargo manifest and the meticulous daily records of the salvage operation. These suggest that the vessel took on 35,943 individual explosive items, of which 13,961 remain. The salvage operation mainly removed the smaller bombs and shells, so those that remain packed on racks in the forward holds amount to slightly more than half the explosive weight of the original cargo—some 3,105 tonnes. This is more than double the figure quoted by the MCA. Can the Minister explain why there is such a discrepancy? Was the salvage operation much more effective than those who conducted it said at the time—this sounds inherently implausible—or have 1,700 tonnes of munitions been removed surreptitiously over the last 75 years without anyone noticing? Perhaps, as the state of the wreck has deteriorated, the bombs and shells have simply fallen out and are on the sea bed. That presumably means they are still in close proximity to the rest of the explosive cargo and remain as big a collective threat.

Certainly, some phosphorus has escaped from the munitions and risen to the surface of the water, where it has caught fire on contact with the atmosphere. At least 40 such instances were reported in one year alone. How often have such incidents been recorded in the past decade, and what threat do they pose to the rest of the cargo? My fundamental question to the Minister is: what is the state of the munitions that remain? How has that assessment been made? If an unexploded half-tonne bomb was still regarded as sufficient a threat to close City Airport last year, presumably these 1,400 tonnes of munitions on the MCA figures—let alone the 3,100 tonnes estimated from the manifest and the salvage records—are, by orders of magnitude, a far greater threat.

In 1970 the Royal Military College of Science prepared an assessment of what would happen if the entire remaining cargo were to explode: a 3,000 metre-high column of water and debris and a five metre-high tsunami. This would overwhelm Sheerness and the water wave, possibly carrying burning phosphorus, would reach the petrochemical installation on the Isle of Grain. Does the Minister accept the analysis of the Royal Military College of Science? If not, why not? Indeed, what is the current assessment of the effect of the entire cargo exploding?

A more recent risk assessment was conducted in 1999. I understand that it remains classified. Why? Are the conclusions so serious that the public cannot be told? Has the Minister read it and will she undertake to place a copy in the Library?

There are limited ways in and out of the Isles of Sheppey and Grain, either for the emergency services to converge in numbers and at speed or, for that matter, for people to evacuate. What contingency plans are in place to handle such an emergency and when were they last rehearsed? What is the assessment of the risk of a tidal wave travelling up the River Thames and reaching London? These are not circumstances in which the Thames Barrier, which takes up to 90 minutes to close, would be of much use.

Another worrying factor is the proximity of shipping. More than 5,000 vessels pass the wreck each year. Until 1978 there were 24 near misses, but later figures are not available. Perhaps this is because of two potentially catastrophic incidents in May 1980. In the first, the “MV Fletching” grazed one of the marker buoys and came within 15 metres of the wreck. Later that week the Danish-registered “Mare Altum”, a chemical tanker of almost 1,600 gross tonnage carrying low-flashpoint toluene, was on a collision course and disaster was averted only minutes before it would have hit the wreck. The consequences of that would have been unthinkable. How many near misses have there been in the period since then?

In 2017, a paddle-boarder posted a picture on social media of himself balanced on the wreck and pleasure boats often come close. In 1969, as a prank, students from Kent University phoned the police threatening to blow the wreck up. Not surprisingly, that led to a massive security operation. A similar operation was mounted during the 2012 Olympics, according to one source because a speedboat carrying three men and explosives was intercepted nearby. Was that security operation simply precautionary or was it in response to a specific threat? Indeed, what mitigations are in place to prevent a terrorist attack on the wreck?

The SS “Richard Montgomery” is owned by the United States Government. In 1948 and 1967, the US offered to make the wreck safe. Both offers were turned down. Why were those offers rejected? What were the last communications with the US on this matter and are the US Government still liable for the damage caused if the wreck explodes? As far as I am aware, every other wreck with such a dangerous cargo in the immediate waters around the British Isles has been made safe. Can the Minister confirm that this is the case and, if so, why has this wreck been left alone?

The Government’s policy appears to be to bury their head in the Sheerness sands, presumably in the hope that the problem will simply go away. Every year, however, the fabric of the wreck disintegrates further and, as surveys look at only its external condition, nothing is known about the contents and their condition. Any of the munitions found elsewhere on their own would immediately trigger a major evacuation and an emergency. So why are the Government so relaxed about thousands of such bombs and shells deteriorating together in an unstable environment, unguarded and unprotected? Why has nothing been done for 75 years? Why is there no plan to make the wreck safe? Perhaps the biggest question of all is: who will take responsibility for what happens if it all goes wrong?

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 7:33 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, on the way in which he has assembled his arguments and the thoroughness with which he has presented them to the House—and also on the slight note of passion in his voice. Obviously he knows this subject extremely well. I have four points to make and none of them seeks to undermine health and safety matters—I am not a jeerer at health and safety matters at all. First, the excellent wartime tag, Keep Calm and Carry On, is a pretty good one provided that one is not complacent.

My second point is that risk assessments of threats to life and property are a real public good—of course, I agree with the noble Lord about that—whether on the coastline that we are discussing this evening where the Liberty ship “Richard Montgomery” rests or indeed all over London every time there is deep excavation or groundworks preparing a site for some heavyweight high-rise building to be constructed. The risks are always there, whether they are of unexploded bombs or risks to our architectural or archaeological heritage. Risks are there all the time.

In making my third point, I should declare where my interest has come from and how it has been piqued because this is not a well-known special subject for me in your Lordships’ House. A few years ago—I have always thought it was an excellent decision—I took the precaution of marrying an Essex girl. She was born and brought up in the northern part of Essex: estuarine Essex on the sea. That is one reason. Secondly, I learned a lot from her because her distinguished grandfather, Commander Lightoller, went down with the Titanic. He happily popped up again and survived and had the great honour of being played in “A Night to Remember” by Kenneth More. He was a very brave sailor in the First World War, cruising up and down in his destroyers in the North Sea dealing with U-boat threats and got a clutch of distinguished service crosses.

Towards the end of his life, he went out in his own ship, the “Sundowner”, from London down that very estuary, not very far from this wreck, and proceeded in Operation Dynamo to load up “Sundowner” with 127 soldiers and bring them back from Dunkirk. Four years later, of course, trying to help the Allied efforts, the ship that we are discussing came to an end. That is why I have been particularly interested in this. I have read quite a lot of the stuff to which the noble Lord referred and I will not repeat it, because he has given us a masterly tour d’horizon.

My fourth point, which is important for noble Lords to consider, is that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has died because of this wreck, including the very brave stevedores who went out on the wreck for some weeks, as the noble Lord said, trying to unload and empty some of the munitions from this Liberty ship before it sank deeper and the task became absolutely impossible. Nor has anyone ever been harmed who has been involved in the continuous and detailed monitoring of what may be the most monitored shipwreck in the world. I do not know whether it is or not, but it must be high on the list of those that might be—quite rightly. I do not know how much all this monitoring costs and I will not ask my noble friend Lady Barran to come up with a total figure because that will take a shedload of calculations from civil servants and take even more money away from what should be spent on continuing to safeguard this wreck by the detailed calculations and monitoring of the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Of course, we have had reassurances in the past from Mr Boris Johnson that, should his island airport ever be built quite close by, it would not be a problem—so I am reassured by that, as I am sure the whole House is.

The sorts of surveys that are being conducted are not cheap. More is being spent on the current environmental monitoring following the earlier wreck surveys completed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in 2017 and 2018, and we are told to expect the report on the 2018 survey in the fourth quarter of this year. I hope that those responsible in the Department for Transport will ensure the publication of that environmental assessment. We certainly need to be told about it. Nothing is being wasted by all the money that has been spent. It has been spent to protect people, land and life. It has also led to considerable advances, which are not to be sneered at, in the science that has been developed in this monitoring, which should be welcomed.

Much good science has been spun off into marine archaeology and other sub-sea surface work, particularly the use of lasers, so monitoring is not a wasted undertaking in any sense at all. Others using such analytics might be helped in respect of maritime rescue in other ways. Of course, with the growth of data analytics worldwide, there are such a lot of wrecks like this around the world that I suspect there is a lot of big data analysis of the handling of such wrecks, albeit in different environments—not all in the plashy Thames estuary but in tropical waters and elsewhere.

All through this process, there has been a great advance in learning. However, I think that the next time—and I bet that this is the case in the fourth quarter—we have a report published, it will repeat that the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote. “Believed” is a key word, because it protects the writer, quite rightly. It is their belief, and no one can be certain because some of the things that the noble Lord has pointed to could well happen. The risk is as remote or as present as it has ever been: I do not think that there is necessarily a cumulative growth in the risk. We need to continue monitoring, and so, with that thought in mind, I return to how I opened my brief speech and say, “Keep calm and carry on monitoring”.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 7:41 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on not only securing this debate but giving us such an interesting and thorough description of what the situation appears to have been in the past and what it is today. Certainly, I would not accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that the risk is remote. As my noble friend said, we need evidence. There is an awful lot of other evidence suggesting that these kinds of explosives, having been sitting on the seabed for 70 years or so, actually get more dangerous rather than less, but we have to wait for the report.

My interest in this is that I have often sailed past the site, and it is nice that there are 12 buoys marking it and that there is an exclusion zone. I am grateful to some of my colleagues in the United Kingdom Maritime Pilots Association, of which I am honorary president. One of the pilots from the Medway, Ian McMahon, sent me a little bit of information about what it is like taking big ships past it several times a day. It is very close: it is monitored, they say, by 24-hour CCTV and 24-hour radar. I am told that if anything enters the zone, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, SOSRep, the Receiver of Wreck and the duty marine manager are notified. That is all very good: it needs monitoring, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said.

Interestingly, I am told that when the large LNG vessels go past it within 150 metres, they have an escort of three tugs. That is a very expensive piece of kit. One wonders why somebody has suggested that LNG carriers need tugs, but other ships do not. They just go up under the Nore pilotage operations with no extra precautions. It seems to me that the biggest risk is of somebody or some ship or something colliding with the SS “Richard Montgomery” and setting off an explosion, as my noble friend has said.

My noble friend has also described a number of instances where ships have not gone where they were supposed to have gone in spite of having a pilot on board. I know of one instance on the River Thames where a pilot got on board the ship as it was coming in. When the pilot went up on the bridge, he shook hands with the skipper, looked to see what the navigation equipment was like and whether it worked, and went through the usual routine. Was there a depth sounder? No, it did not work. Was there a compass? No, it was jammed. Was there radar? No, the fuse was gone. What about navigational equipment such as GPS? No, that did not work either. In the end, the pilot said to the skipper, “Well, can you tell us where you have come from?” He said, “I came from Stockholm”. The pilot then said, “How did you navigate from Stockholm to the Thames?” The answer was, “Well, I followed that ship over there”. This is the kind of shipping that we have to deal with.

I live in Cornwall and we had an instance about three months ago when a freight ship going to the Isles of Scilly was going into the dock and the skipper decided to slow down and turned to starboard to berth, and for some reason the ship decided to go straight ahead at full speed and hit a fishing boat. Okay, it was not a 70,000-tonne tanker, but these things do go wrong. Any of those examples and many more could cause a ship to hit the “Richard Montgomery”.

My final point, which is new to discussions like this in the past few years, is about the ability of a drone to do the same thing. We know that drones can bomb people; we know that they can interfere with airports, which happened last Christmas, but there is no reason not to suppose that if anybody wanted to cause serious trouble they could put a bomb on a drone and decide to bomb the SS “Richard Montgomery”. They might think it was fun. It is a risk that we have to take.

If we still accept the evidence that this kind of cargo on the ship is pretty unstable and could go up with the slightest incentive, then we have to take very seriously the possibility of anybody hitting it with anything from the air or the sea. I am told that there is a way of removing most of the cargo from the ship in a safe manner. It seems to me that we have a duty not only to press the Government for the information that my noble friend has asked for but to get the widest possible expert procedure and method statement of how the cargo could be removed. The sooner this is done the better, because it is going to go on breaking up, as my noble friend said, and at some stage if it breaks up that much, perhaps the explosives will go over the seabed, but perhaps some of it will come to the surface and cause some very nasty accidents. It is in a pretty built-up area, and we owe it to everybody who lives around there to get this sorted as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench 7:47 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I share the gratefulness of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for introducing this short debate with some expert knowledge. He seemed surprised that the Liberty ship was built in 137 days. One of them was actually built in four days. Although they were built to last for only one voyage across the Atlantic, after the war many of these Liberty ships went on to work for the Greeks and other nations for some 20 years. They were not quite as rough as they were made out to be. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that I had the great pleasure of sailing across to Dunkirk in the “Sundowner” in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative

If the noble Lord will allow me, I hope he will hitch a ride next year, in 2020, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the little ships going and coming back. The “Sundowner” will, for sure, be in that fleet of little ships.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench

I thank the noble Lord for the invitation, but I am chairman of the preservation society of the old London fire boat, the “Massey Shaw”, which is another Dunkirk veteran, so I may be committed already.

As we have heard, this wreck is surveyed constantly, at least once or twice a year. It was last done in February and March of this year, and another survey is due in August. Huge improvements in the efficiency of side-scanning sonar have meant that surveys can usually be accomplished in just two days—compared with many days, with weather hold-ups, in the past—and we can now measure very accurately any changes in the deterioration of the wreck, even down to centimetres.

The noble Lord mentioned the possibility of some of the bombs having spilled out of the ship. If they had done, they would have been quickly picked up by the new sonar, and there is no evidence that I can see that that has happened. In addition, a remote sensing tripod has been placed on the sea floor to measure any environmental changes—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to this—including changes to the seabed, which is constantly scoured by the tide coming out of the River Medway.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is the official Receiver of Wreck in inshore waters, engages an internationally recognised survey company to carry out the work. It either uses one of its own vessels or, if that is not available, it takes one of the Port of London Authority’s well-equipped survey vessels, which have the added advantages of knowing the waters and being more or less on the spot, as they are based in Gravesend. I understand that a technical adviser from the MoD is on board at all times during the surveys.

I also understand that the Department for Transport has set up an expert advisory panel which initially met every two months but now, I gather, tends to meet whenever new evidence comes to light.

Sheerness is no stranger to explosions. On 26 November 1914, HMS “Bulwark”, a pre-dreadnought battleship which was moored a little way up the Medway, exploded while loading ammunition, killing some 750 of her crew. On 27 May 1915, HMS “Princess Irene”, a new ferry built for the Canadian Pacific Railway but taken up on completion by the Royal Navy for conversion to a minelayer, exploded while loading mines at a buoy off Port Victoria, which is approximately three miles west-south-west of Sheerness, prior to making her third voyage; 352 persons were killed, including most of the ship’s company and 78 dockyard workers who were on board to strengthen the improvised gun decks. It later transpired that the mines were in the process of being activated, but the job was done in somewhat of a hurry by untrained staff.

I now continue with the history lesson and turn to two subsequent ship explosions, which may have some relevance in terms of a worst-case scenario. On 6 December 1917, two merchant vessels collided at slow speed in what are known as the Narrows at the entrance to Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia. The departing Norwegian steamer “Imo”—I get confused here, because the International Maritime Organization is known as IMO—which had originally been built for the White Star Line, struck a French steamer, the “Mont-Blanc”, which was arriving from New York loaded with some 3,000 tons of gun-cotton and TNT and had barrels of benzol and picric acid on deck, all destined for the war in Europe. The shock of the collision dislodged some of the deck cargo, allowing vapour to escape, which was ignited by sparks as the two vessels drew apart. The burning “Mont-Blanc” drifted ashore near Pier 6 on the Halifax waterfront and exploded 20 minutes later, killing around 2,000 persons and injuring another 9,000. All structures within a half-mile radius were obliterated, with 400 acres seriously damaged. Some reports speak of a 60 foot tsunami which washed the “Imo” ashore on the opposite side of the harbour.

The second explosion concerned the “Fort Stikine”, another emergency war-built vessel, but not a Liberty ship—she was a Fort built in Canada. She had a part-cargo of 1,400 tons of explosives. When she blew up, it destroyed a large part of the dock area in Bombay in two separate blasts on 14 April 1944. Thirteen other ships were sunk and a similar number were badly damaged, while a shower of burning debris set fire to a nearby slum area. Some reports say that 850 people perished, but the exact figure is not known and it is likely to be a lot more than that. In addition, 50,000 people lost their jobs. To give some idea of the destruction, it took 8,000 men seven months to remove the debris and get the docks working again but, somewhat surprisingly, almost all the gold bars being carried by the “Fort Stikine” in 31 wooden crates, four to a crate, were later recovered.

I have mentioned these examples to indicate what can happen when an ammunition ship explodes, but in three of the examples I have given, heat was the ultimate cause of the blasts. In HMS “Bulwark”, explosives were being stored temporarily too close to a boiler room, and the “Fort Stikine” had developed a fire in her part-cargo of cotton bales, which were stowed beneath the ammunition. In addition, the Halifax and Bombay explosions occurred literally within their respective cities, which multiplied the damage.

Compared with these, the “Richard Montgomery” wreck is situated 1.5 miles off Sheerness and five miles from Southend, and the munitions remaining on board have now been submerged for 75 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said. A former bomb disposal expert who advised the Government on the cargo of the “Richard Montgomery” has said that water is a good mitigator in preventing detonations.

There are, of course, worries about Sheerness and the LNG terminal and storage facilities on the opposite bank on the Isle of Grain. The new storage tanks have nickel-something—I cannot remember the name—inside, with pre-stressed concrete outside and a reinforced concrete roof. They are a bit like a German bunker in many ways, so I am not certain that they would be too badly affected. However, I know that only a few weeks ago a new rail service started up to carry aviation fuel from there to Heathrow.

Some people have proposed either moving the whole wreck, which would be well-nigh impossible, or just removing the munitions. The latter course has been estimated to cost tens of millions of pounds and would probably involve the evacuation of Sheerness.

On balance and in conclusion, I tend to follow the line of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that we should leave well alone but continue to monitor closely the gradual degradation of the wreck.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 7:57 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I was attracted to this debate for the simple reason that munitions that have been lying around from previous conflicts are something virtually everybody here has grown up with to some extent. Internationally, we get off fairly lightly. The Library briefing refers to the huge amount of munitions that were simply dumped off the coasts of Germany and Denmark because that was the safest and easiest thing to do when we were disarming the Germans. In northern France and Belgium, in what was no-man’s land, they are still taking casualties because of 100 year-old munitions.

The question we have to ask here is: what is the risk involved in this huge volume of explosives being in one place? If one percentage point of the smaller figure for munitions down there went off—14 tonnes of explosive—that is still an enormous blast. Nobody is quite sure what effect it would have, because it would depend on what else it caught, but it would still be an enormous explosion—so the risk is enormous. Let us agree on that. Whether you are blown up a bit or a lot will not make much difference to you if you are blown up, to be perfectly honest. What are we doing to assess the risk of these types of munitions?

As we have already heard, phosphorus is leaking from them, so there is some degradation. Does that make them more stable or more volatile? It is a pretty basic question. Is the arming system on these munitions—the impact fuse, call it what you like—still active? If it is an impact type of detonation, even a comparatively small ship will mean hundreds of tonnes travelling and, even at a few miles an hour, there will still be an enormous impact.

A ship was mentioned that was sailed more or less by good luck and dead reckoning. My historical knowledge says that we gave that up as an official guide in the 18th century. If that is still going on, this type of impact is a possibility. Are those munitions going to be ignited by that or would enough of them be?

It was also suggested in some of the briefing we received that if a large amount of sand were to be put over the ship you would further lessen the risk. What is the possibility of doing that type of risk-reduction process?

Another way is just to tell everybody to go nowhere near it. The geography suggests that we cannot do that. Monitoring of the ship has to be more exact and there must be some form of intervention policy. I rather doubt that with a comparatively small charge you could detonate something under several metres of water, possibly silt, and inside an old decaying steel thing, but I bet somebody out there is thinking about it.

There is also the question of how we will know what to do if the threat, for some other reason, becomes intense. What are the emergency plans for the metal thing? If the plans are to evacuate thousands of people, suddenly some of the other options might become more viable. I expect to get out of this debate an idea of what the Government know and what their contingency plans are. If America is still willing to take this away, is it worth saying, “Have a go,” or is the risk too much to make it acceptable? It is merely a matter of finding out the options so we can have another think about it. If we do not know we will carrying on talking about it.

We heard about the worst-case scenario at the beginning. How real do people think that is? A tsunami would make an awfully good television programme. What are the real chances under the assessment? Who has done the work? That is something we need to know.

Last, but by no means least, what is the potential environmental damage of further degradation of the chemicals that leak out? We should take that into account. We know some has taken place. What would happen down there?

I do not think that any of us here has an answer. All the interventions come at some cost and at some risk. Can we at least know what is going on? There is lots of worldwide research into what you do with old munitions. Some of our close allies and neighbours are dealing with the same problem. What has been done? What is the process? What are we going to do about it? One thing is sure—it is not going away any time soon.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:03 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey is to be congratulated on again pursuing the key questions that he has asked today about the wreck of the SS “Richard Montgomery” and the threat it still potentially poses after 75 years. The wreck is designated as a “dangerous wreck” under Section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and, consequently, regular surveys are undertaken.

I suppose I must have gone close to it twice last autumn on a cruise liner from Tilbury and, having listened to my noble friend’s speech, I am not sure that I want to venture east from Tilbury again.

The official view, it seems, is to quote the background information from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that is provided in the Library briefing for this debate that,

“the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”.

Why is the risk “believed” to be remote when the wreck has been designated as being dangerous under the 1973 Act because of the amount of explosives remaining on board, with regular surveys needing to be undertaken? Believed by whom? The official view is not that the risk of a major explosion is remote but that it is believed to be remote, which is certainly not as emphatic or definite a statement and not entirely reassuring.

What is the hard evidence about these explosives and the state they are in that justifies the view that the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote? Is it because the wreck is deemed largely stable where it is, but if that situation changed the risk would no longer be believed to be remote? Or are the munitions still on board deteriorating with time in such a way that there could now no longer be a major explosion if they did go off?

Is it considered more dangerous to try to remove the remaining munitions than it is to live with the situation of the wreck as it is today, with the munitions on board? What would have to happen to the wreck or the remaining munitions still in it to make it more likely than “believed to be remote” that the remaining munitions would be the cause of a major explosion? What would it cost to remove the munitions still on board, assuming that this is feasible? What is the cost per annum of the current security and protection arrangements for the wreck—provided, as I understand it, by the Medway Ports Authority—and who pays the cost?

What do the Government think would be the impact on surrounding areas and on the Thames itself if the remaining munitions were now destroyed in a controlled explosion, and what would be the cost? If that approach was to be adopted, who has the final authority to make that decision? What do the Government think would be the impact on surrounding areas and on the Thames itself if the remaining munitions blew up in an uncontrolled explosion? My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has asked a number of specific questions of the Government and I hope they will be able to respond to at least some of them today.

The SS “Richard Montgomery” had a cargo of some 7,000 tonnes of munitions, according to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency briefing, and crossed the Atlantic in a convoy in August 1944, before ending up on a sandbank in the Thames Estuary, where it remains today. A salvage effort, as we have already heard, led to approximately half the cargo being removed before the vessel flooded completely. The latest survey of the wreck by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency indicates that some 1,400 tonnes of munitions remain in the forward section. Where and when, then, did the 2,000 tonnes or so of munitions go that make up the difference between 1,400 tonnes and the up to 3,500 tonnes left after approximately half the 7,000 tonnes on the SS “Richard Montgomery” had been removed in 1944? My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey raised this question in his opening speech, on the basis of some much more precise figures than are contained in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency briefing.

The Library briefing contains the latest survey report of the SS “Richard Montgomery”, commissioned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The report outlines the outcome of the surveys of the wreck undertaken, as I understand it, in November 2017 and April 2018, and indicates that the wreck is stable overall, with more accelerated levels of deterioration in the structure since the previous survey, which I think may be as recent as 2016, limited to three out of six key areas, which have been noted in previous surveys and which have now shown structural changes since the previous survey.

As far as I can see—I may be wrong—the report does not comment on how much longer the structure of the wreck is likely to remain intact and without significant change or on what the impact of any new significant change might be on the remaining munitions, and does not address the current state of the remaining munitions and whether they represent a decreasing or increasing hazard or risk as time goes on. Are the Government able to provide answers to these issues or are they questions that are neither asked nor answered?

The latest survey report also indicates, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, that the DfT has commissioned some environmental monitoring around the wreck that will require the placement of scientific equipment on the seabed just outside the prohibited area. What exactly has prompted the commissioning of this environmental monitoring, and what is it intended to check or ascertain? The survey report says that the equipment is expected to be placed on the seabed for at least a 12-month period and that results are expected at the end of this year. Is this still the timeframe for the environmental monitoring? Finally, what was the cost of the latest surveys undertaken in, as I understand it, 2017 and 2018, and what is the expected cost of the environmental monitoring currently being undertaken?

There appears to be a significant difference of view between the Government, and indeed previous Governments, and my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey, in the powerful case that he has made today, about the likelihood of a major explosion on the wreck of the SS “Richard Montgomery” materialising. The questions that he has posed today deserve a fully and considered response, backed up by supporting evidence.

Subject to what the Government might say in response, I am concerned by the background information document from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which, I repeat, provides the far from comforting words that,

“the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”.

As my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey said in his concluding sentence: who will take responsibility if it all goes horribly wrong? My guess is that if it all went horribly wrong, it would result in one of the biggest buck-passing exercises in history.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:11 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I too begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for securing this debate. I also thank all noble Lords for the fascinating contributions that we have been privileged to hear in your Lordships’ House this evening. Since I arrived here a year ago, I have never had a day without learning something new and this evening is absolutely no exception. I will endeavour to cover the points raised, but if time does not permit me I will write to noble Lords on any outstanding issues.

As all noble Lords have pointed out, the SS “Richard Montgomery” is very different from most World War II wrecks in UK waters. It rests in shallow water near residentially populated areas and approximately 1,400 tonnes of explosive munitions remain on board. That figure is the net explosive weight, rather than the net cargo weight, which is what I believe the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was referring to. I think that, rather than the mystery disappearance of munitions, explains the discrepancy.

We understand that much of the explosive content still aboard is TNT, but we also understand that there is white phosphorus on the wreck in the form of signals and smoke bombs, which are in the deep tanks, and the surveys show no breaches. I will double-check this following the debate but my information is that we have no recorded examples of phosphorus escaping.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Addington, asked about the state of the munitions. Although we are not in a position to understand fully the condition of the munitions, we believe that the TNT is likely to be inert because the fuses have degraded over time. I am afraid we do not have an estimate of the cost of removing the munitions, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser requested.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

Has there been any historical study of this type of fuse and the rate at which it deteriorates? That is the only solid information that we could get. Has anything been done about that? Apparently it is a standard bomb so there must be other examples.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

There are two answers to that question. Historically, a number of these bombs were shipped unfused, but the records are not available to know whether they were fused or not. In everything we have done, we have made the most cautious assumptions. The other modelling that has been done involved testing similar explosives to see what state they would be in, but that has not been done on the explosives on board the vessel.

The Government take their responsibility for the wreck extremely seriously. As part of our legal duty under Section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, we have designated a prohibited area around the wreck, and it is an offence to enter this area without the written permission of the Secretary of State. The last known unauthorised incursion into the area was by a paddle-boarder, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred, in 2015.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

If that was the most recent case—if it were, that would perhaps be reassuring—how quickly were the authorities able to get to the paddle-boarder and remove him?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I will have to write to the noble Lord in response to that.

He asked about the assessment made by the Royal Military College of Science in 1970. More recent studies have suggested different outcomes from the one outlined there, but a full assessment of a mass detonation is difficult because of the problem of understanding the condition of the munitions—a point to which I have already alluded. He also asked about the 1999 risk assessment. I have been advised that there is a hard copy of it in the Libraries of both Houses.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the basis for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s current assessment of risk. The hard evidence that supports this comes from the regular surveys that we carry out and the advice over many years that the cargo is likely to be stable if left undisturbed. I stress that we always take the most cautious approach to our assessments.

A further part of our ongoing work to mitigate the risk that the SS “Richard Montgomery” poses is ensuring that regular surveys are undertaken to understand the condition of the wreck and its surrounding environment. My noble friend Lord Patten stressed the importance of the use of risk-assessment data—I do not know whether it is big data but it is certainly data—in our work. The surveys are commissioned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and are undertaken by commercial offshore survey contractors.

The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Addington, asked about the environmental monitoring around the wreck. No specific environmental issue prompted the action; it was a pre-emptive move as part of our ongoing commitment to manage the wreck.

In response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the monitoring will also study what effect the wreck may or may not be having on its immediate environment—for example, through measurement of the water quality around the wreck. This monitoring is ongoing and will be completed later this year.

As my noble friend Lord Patten mentioned, on 3 June this year we published, on GOV.UK, the most recent surveys online for 2016 and 2017. This underlines our ongoing commitment to transparency in our monitoring of the wreck. As noble Lords have noted, these surveys confirm that the wreck of the SS “Richard Montgomery” remains stable but its gradual degradation continues. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, pointed out, technology is improving all the time, allowing us to understand the situation better.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

The noble Baroness said that the report considers that the explosives pose no risk if the wreck is stable and nothing moves. Has anyone carried out an assessment of what would happen if something hit it? It is fine having the zones around it and 24-hour monitoring, but if a ship is going to hit it, there is nothing that anyone can do about that. Has there been an assessment of what would happen if a ship did hit it?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am not aware of whether an assessment has been made but I will write to the noble Lord to confirm on that point. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, mentioned the establishment of the expert advisory group to help us to consider how best to manage the wreck in future. This was formed in November 2017 and is made up of an independent chair, experts from the salvage industry and various government experts with knowledge of dealing with wrecks or experience of dealing with munitions of the type contained in the wreck.

An important function of the group is to provide a steer of potential options for long-term management of the wreck. The group is currently considering whether monitoring and regular surveying is still the correct course of action or whether a more proactive intervention should be considered. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, suggested, interventions could include the removal of munitions or some form of containment of the wreck, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned. I stress that the advice I have been given is that this is not as straightforward as the noble Lord perhaps suggested.

On the decision-making responsibility, any decision about a change of approach to the wreck would be made by Ministers. We appreciate that there are no risk-free options, as noble Lords have pointed out, which is why we are using the most qualified experts we can find.

The noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Addington, asked about contingency planning in the event of an incident. Responsibility lies with the Kent Resilience Forum, which includes all the first-response services. It is kept closely updated about the results of the survey and has wider plans for the safety of the area, of which any incident with the wreck obviously forms a key part.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about a tidal wave that might travel up the River Thames in the event of a detonation. We do not believe that would be the outcome. Rather, we believe there would be a sudden displacement and replacement of water, which would impact the immediate vicinity but would not form a travelling wave.

The noble Lord also asked about incidents and incursions. We have talked about the paddle-boarder and the Chinese fishing boat in 2002. We believe that the 2012 security operation was precautionary. I have no record of other incidents.

With regard to conversations with the US Government, the department is not sure why any offer of help was rejected. The issue has not been discussed recently and responsibility sits clearly with this Government.

To conclude, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for bringing this debate on such an important issue and all those who have spoken. I hope that the measures I have outlined in my response provide some confidence to those who live near the wreck, and to your Lordships, that the issue is taken with the utmost seriousness by the Government. The SS “Richard Montgomery” remains the most surveyed and the most monitored wreck in the country.

House adjourned at 8.23 pm.