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BLAST INCIDENT COST DEFENDANT COMPANY £1.24m

Significant safety management system failings were underlying cause 

Shell UK Limited has been ordered to pay a total of £1.24million in fines and costs following an explosion and fire at the Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk in 2008.

The explosion blew the concrete roof off a buffering tank within the plant, hurling concrete and metal debris over a large area and sucking a nearby drain out of the ground. HSE and Environment Agency (EA) launched a joint prosecution over safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures.

Corroded metal was immediate cause

The cause of the explosion was traced to a leak of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquid into a part of the plant responsible for treating waste water before discharging it into the sea.

The leak was caused by the failure of a corroded metal separator vessel, which allowed water contaminated with the highly flammable condensate to enter a concrete storage tank where it was heated by an electric heater. The heater elements were exposed within the tank, raising the surface temperature significantly causing the explosion and fire.

Dring the incident there was an unauthorised release into the North Sea of 850 tonnes of fire water and fire fighting foam which ought to have been prevented. Shell UK had failed to close the sea gate until about an hour after the fire started.

Safety management systems should be reviewed

At an earlier hearing Shell pleaded guilty to seven charges covering safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures at the plant which led to the blast. The compant was fined a total of £1milllion and ordered to pay £242,000 costs.

After sentencing, HSE Inspector Steve Johnson, said:

“The fact no-one was seriously hurt in this incident was solely down to good fortune as the company’s internal report acknowledges. Shell UK neglected basic maintenance leading up to the explosion.

Our investigation found key components had been failing for some years and the company knew this, yet there had been no appreciation of the potential for an incident such as this.

In particular there had been no attempt to assess the risk that arose from condensate entering the water treatment plant despite the fact that the plant was not designed to handle highly flammable liquids like condensate.

The investigation revealed significant failings in the safety management system operating on the plant and hopefully other operators will take note of the outcome of this incident and maybe review their own procedures.”

Environment Agency Environment Manager for Norfolk and Suffolk Marcus Sibley said:

“We are disappointed that a company such as Shell with its experience in the fuel industry should have operated in this fashion. This is a high risk industry and that is why we expect high standards. The explosion could have led to a major environmental disaster as other highly flammable materials were stored nearby.”

Comment

This case also has lessons for those involved in construction. Safety management systems decay over time. A sound culture, positive leadership and  robust reviews / audits are essential to minimising the chances of your worst case scenario occurring.

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