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July 30, 2008

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Land-use planning needs COMAH focus to reduce risk

A new report from the Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board (MIIB) calls for greater collaboration between the agencies involved in land-use planning around major hazard sites.

The eighth report from the MIIB since the Buncefield oil explosion and fire in December 2005 highlights the difficulties in satisfying the requirements of disparate strategic, economic, social, safety and environmental interests, and calls for a more cohesive system. It recommends a greater alignment between land-use planning and the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 (COMAH).

“The basis for assessing risk under COMAH, where there is a precise estimation of the risks on a site and the control measures needed, simply does not read across into the planning system,” Taf Powell, the Buncefield investigation manager, told SHP. “Buncefield put a lot of people in jeopardy. By good fortune there were no casualties, but there was a huge amount of off-site damage, and litigation is currently running at around £1bn,” he said.

The MIIB wants a review to look into the granting of consents to site operators, who, it believes, should be involved in the planning process. It asks for the total population at risk to be considered for each new application, in order to consider the cumulative effect of developments on societal risk.

Powell warned that the current planning system is not risk-responsive. “We need a balance between public prosperity and public protection, which will not be achieved unless we move to a planning system that is more responsive to risk,” he urged. He called for the process to move to a system of using quantitative risk assessments on major hazard sites, similar to those used around nuclear installations.

“We also need to bring into play the risk of a fatality rather than continuing to use “dangerous dose or worse”, an HSE term developed 20 years ago,” Powell added. “We have much better frequency data on high-hazard events these days, and should be using fatality data like the rest of Europe and the US.

Decision-making should be taken by the local authority, with technical information prepared by the site operator overseen by the HSE, and contributed to by regional authorities, fire and rescue services, police, and all those with an interest in strategic, economic and social issues, so that the tolerability of risk in the exposed population can be transparent and flexible.”

IOSH welcomed the report. Chris Marsh, chair of the Institution’s Hazardous Industries Group, said: “We need a joined-up, risk-based system and it needs to be properly explained to the public. Key stakeholders and experts in the planning system should be brought together with the HSE to agree how best this can be taken forward, and IOSH members will undoubtedly be bale to help with this.”

He also supported calls for better sharing of incident data and for major-hazard site operators to review their management systems. “An ‘Incident Alert System’, as used in the offshore industry, could help people share information and lessons for prevention, and we believe should serve as a model for other major-hazard sectors.

“The offshore industry itself is facing a challenge with ageing infrastructure, and the same could be true for some onshore major-hazard installations. That’s why it’s important operators review their management systems for maintenance of equipment and systems to ensure they continue to operate safely.”

The report, Recommendations on land use planning and the control of societal risk around major hazard sites, can be downloaded at the link below.

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