Buncefield blast: environmental impact likely to be limited

Despite producing the largest explosion in Europe since the end of the bombing raids of the Second World War and releasing a plume of dirty black smoke clearly visible for miles around, Hertfordshire's oil depot inferno seems unlikely to cause lasting environmental harm.

While there will be toxic fallout as rain drives particulate matter from the smoke back to earth, it will be dispersed over such a wide area and despite the scale of the fire it is not predicted to cause any lasting problems.

The smoke in the vicinity of the fire and airborne particulate matter had the potential to aggravate existing respiratory problems such as asthma but as a large area was evacuated, those who remained at home by and large followed precautionary advice and emergency workers wore protective equipment doctors from the affected area claim there was no significant increase in cases.

While the burning fuel will have emitted greenhouse gas carbon dioxide the disaster, while large by human standards, would not register on a global scale.

Huge quantities of water were pumped two miles from the Grand Union Canal and during the peak of the fire fighting as much as 32,000 litres per minute was being used to contain the blaze.

But once again, this is unlikely to have a significant impact on the reserves of the water-starved South East.

The real potential for environmental disaster comes from pollutants reaching the aquifer and contaminating the water supply, as well as damaging land quality.

The Environment Agency issued a statement on Monday saying this would only occur if any of the petrochemicals escaped from the site and there was no evidence at that point to suggest that had happened.

The fire-waters, combined with oil and petrol, could have a severe impact on surface and ground water quality, and, in turn, aquatic life.

The EA said it was working with the fire service to ensure measures were taken to avoid this situation and run-off was collected in bunds around site before being pumped to safe storage areas.

As a precaution drinking water abstraction boreholes have also been closed in conjunction with Three Valleys Water Company.

The EA’s Colin Chiverton said: “Clearly the immediate concern is controlling the incident at hand. At the moment we are closely monitoring the situation for any potential environmental impact and will continue to do so.”

“At present we are looking at the predicted impact of the smoke plume, but that is clearly dependent on weather conditions and success in putting out the fire.

“Agencies are currently performing an analysis of the smoke plume. Based on the type of fuel stored at the site and the foam that has been used we do not believe there is significant long-term risk to the environment.

“We will liase with Local Authorities on any specific local concerns on air quality and deposits of dust from the fire.”

Residents in the area were advised that the soot that had covered streets near the blast was relatively harmless and mainly carbon dust, though warned it could contain irritant chemicals.

They were told it was safe to wash the dust from windows and vehicles but any food that had come into contact with it, such as vegetables grown in gardens or allotments, should be scrubbed and peeled before it was consumed.

The blast itself injured 43 people, two of them seriously, but fortunately there were no deaths.

Police officers – including anti-terrorist detectives – are investigating the cause of the incident, but say there is currently nothing to suggest the fire was anything other than an accident.

Hertfordshire’s Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher said: “The damage a fire of this intensity will cause may, or may not, leave clues for the fire investigation team.

“This is possibly the largest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe.”

A member of the public who lives near the site told edie that in the weeks preceding the blast he had noticed large quantities of foam, such as that used to control spills, around the base of one of the silos and in a neighbouring field and could smell a strong petrol odour.

But while depot owner Total SA acknowledged the foam had been there, it categorically denied it was linked to Sunday’s explosion.

“Foam is routinely discharged at the depot as part of ongoing safety checks,” said a spokesman for the company.

“It is not unusual to see foam at oil storage depots, since regular discharge of foam forms an important part of checking safety procedures.

“It is part of the fire fighting equipment stored on site that was being tested.”

He said there had been no known leaks prior to the explosion.

The Green Party has used the disaster as an opportunity to highlight the perceived dangers of the nuclear industry, arguing that it shows that large-scale accidents can and do happen even in the most tightly-regulated of industries.

Keith Taylor Green Party Principal Speaker expressed concern at the

possible environmental impacts of yesterday’s explosions, whilst warning of the consequences had this been a nuclear power plant.

“Had this happened at a nuclear plant, that huge black cloud could well have been radioactive,” said party spokesman Keith Taylor.

“The Chernobyl accident legacy has left 3 million children in several countries still receiving medical treatment.

“Surely, when less damaging energy solutions are available, we should be

developing them?

“It is still too early to tell what the long term impacts of this event will be, but it seems certain that the risk to the surrounding environment is immense.

“The clearly visible airborne pollution may have catastrophic effects on crops – carbon and kerosene residue could make much agricultural produce unusable. This will also have an effect on local dairy produce.

“This is another cautionary tale against the use of dangerous sources of energy we have yet to truly master.

“We desperately need to examine our reliance on oil – not simply because of the explosion, but because it is a finite and volatile supply. Incidents such as this highlight the fragile nature of this exorbitantly expensive fuel, and prices are only going to up as supplies decline.”

By Sam Bond

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