HIGHLAND port bosses have revised plans to seek a licence for ship-to-ship (STS) oil transfers in an environmentally sensitive area after the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) rejected their initial application.

Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA) was forced back to the drawing board after the MCA told it to undertake a “full public consultation” on the application first made in 2015.

In a statement, the MCA said: “The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has directed Cromarty Firth Port Authority to withdraw the application made in 2015 and submit a new application.

“On behalf of the MCA, CFPA will undertake a public consultation on this new application, and the full involvement of the Scottish Government, environmental agencies and wildlife organisations will be sought.”

The port’s chief executive Bob Buskie said the request to withdraw and resubmit the application was standard practice, and the second application was now ready.

He said: “It is nothing we weren’t expecting when we committed to undertaking further public consultation.

“We will follow the standing application protocol, as directed by the MCA. We are looking forward to the next phase of the process and, as part of this, meeting many stakeholders including SEPA, SNH, Highland Council, RSPB, Marine Scotland and members of the public, through our ongoing consultation.

“As part of the process for an additional licence to carry out ship to ship transfers in the Cromarty Firth, the port agreed to carry out refinements to our initial application.

“This detailed package of work is now complete and we will submit our refined application on schedule.”

However, campaigners who oppose the plan because of the potential damage a spill could cause marine wildlife and the environment, say they’ll continue to fight the new application.

Iain Bruce, chairman of the Nairnshire Coalition of Community Councils, said it had been a great example of cooperation between disparate groups in common cause.

“We might have won a battle… but we’re not convinced the war’s over,” he said.

“We need to remember that the Firth of Forth application was approved by MCA, and the cause must be to ensure that the Scottish Government, MSPs and the Highland Council are made to see that transferring crude oil between ships in open water in an environmentally sensitive area is not an activity for any sane society and that the court of public opinion transcends narrow vested interests.

“This is particularly true when there continues to be a completely viable alternative with the Nigg jetty with a 30-year success record.”

Campaign group Cromarty Rising welcomed the MCA decision but said the port authority seemed “hell-bent” on pursuing a new application, despite overwhelming public opposition. A petition on the 38 Degrees website had been signed by almost 20,000 people, while another on the Scottish Government site had attracted more than 800 signatures in a few days.

“It is clear that the Port Authority could not care less about what their stakeholders think – we challenge them to come to public meetings in Cromarty and Nairn to face their opponents,” said a spokesman.

“This is the wrong plan in the wrong place. If the port insist on pressing on with this new application then we must call for the resignation of the chairman and chief executive.”

Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch said she wanted to know why it had taken a year for the MCA to come to a decision.

She added: “Whilst of course we welcome this latest development and it does prove that the MCA are at least recognising the depth of concern and public feeling surrounding this issue, we are still pushing for the plans to be dropped.”

Margaux Dodds, director of Marine Connection said the transfers would be detrimental to the area, and added: “This is quite simply the wrong plan in the wrong place – and no amount of adjustment will change these facts.”

Highland Councillor Craig Fraser said: “I would like to think that common sense would prevail and the port drop the proposal completely.”