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Shell’s “neglect of basic maintenance” costs it £1.2million20 June 2011
Energy giant Shell UK must pay £1.24 million in fines and costs following an explosion and fire at its Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk.
The explosion blew the concrete roof off a buffering plant inside the terminal, which hurled concrete and metal debris across the site and sucked a nearby drain out of the ground. Nobody was seriously injured during the incident, which happened on 28 February 2008.
Ipswich Crown Court heard that the blast occurred inside a water-treatment plant at the site. Investigators identified the cause of the explosion as a leak of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquid into a concrete storage tank in the water-treatment plant. Once the contaminated water entered the tank it was heated by an electric heater, which raised the surface temperature significantly and caused the explosion.
Investigators from the HSE and the Environment Agency (EA) also found that there was an unauthorised release of 850 tonnes of firewater and fire-fighting foam into the North Sea during the incident. Shell UK failed to close the sea gate until an hour after the fire had started, and failed to notify the EA, as required, which meant the company and the emergency serivces did not receive vital advice on environmental protection during the incident, or its aftermath. The delay in notifying the EA also meant an assessment of environmental harm was not possible.
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.” Shell UK appeared in court today (20 June) and pleaded guilty to several breaches of health and safety and environmental legislation. These included:
- Reg.4 of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999, contrary to s33(1)(c) of the HSWA 1974, for failing to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and limit their consequences to persons and the environment – fine £150,000;
- s2(1) of the HSWA 1974 – fine £150,000;
- s3(1) of the HSWA 1974 – fine £140,000;
- s23(1)(a) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, for failing to operate in accordance with the conditions of an IPC authorisation – fine £140,000; and
- three counts of breaching reg. 32(1)(b) of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000, for failing to comply with a condition of a PPC permit – fine £140,000 for each breach.
The total fine amounted to £1million and the company was also ordered to pay £242,000 in costs.
Following the hearing, a Shell spokesperson said: “What happened was completely unacceptable and falls well below the standards that we set for ourselves. Safety is our company’s priority, so an incident like this is deeply disappointing.
“We have admitted our fault, accepted the penalty, and learned the lessons. As a direct result of the investigations into the incident a significant number of improvements have been made.
“Around £3 million has been invested in reviewing operations, processes, safety and integrity systems, and a new waste water-treatment plant is to be built with a design that incorporates enhanced safety features.
“We deeply regret what happened here and are determined to exert all efforts to ensure it does not happen again.”
Environment Agency environment manager for Norfolk and Suffolk, Marcus Sibley, commented: “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.”
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