Oil company fined £895,000 after refinery explosion

One of the world's biggest oil refiners has been fined £895,000 this week and ordered to pay costs of £218,854 after breaching health and safety legislation in two separate incidents.

Texas-based ConocoPhillips Ltd, which has global assets in excess of $97 billion and operates in 40 different countries, had pleaded guilty at Grimsby Crown Court to charges relating to two incidents in 2001.

The first was based on a massive fire and explosion at the Humber Refinery in April of that year while the second was a spill of around 16 tonnes of LPG from a tanker truck in September.

ConocoPhillips had pleaded guilty to seven breaches of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Pressure Systems and Transportable Gas Containers Regulations 1999.

The fire and following explosions at the refinery began when 170 tonnes of highly flammable LPG leaked from a corroded pipe before catching fire, sparking a massive explosion and fire damaging more pipework which led to a second explosion and fireball.

While the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was investigating the explosion, a second incident occurred, with 16 tonnes of LPG leaking from a tanker overnight.

Kevin Allars, head of HSE’s chemical industries division, said: “The incident at the Humber refinery was possibly the most serious chemical incident in Britain since the Flixborough disaster in 1974 and it is fortunate that there were no deaths or very serious injuries.

“This was mainly because the incident occurred on a Bank Holiday and during a shift change when the limited staff on site were away from the plant.

“The potential for loss of life was great.

“However, the extent of the damage to the site and to properties in the nearby village of South Killingholme indicates the violent nature of the explosion.

“The severity of the events at the Humber Refinery have been reflected in the penalties imposed by the court today.”

He added that the HSE will be publishing a detailed report into the investigation of this incident and we will be encouraging the chemical and downstream oil industry to learn the lessons from the ConocoPhillips event.

“Our investigation revealed a systematic failure by the company to inspect the pipework in certain parts of the refinery,” he said.

“It is vital that companies who operate high-hazard sites – such as oil refineries and chemical plants – put rigid and robust systems in place for inspecting pipework to detect corrosion or other defects.”

By Sam Bond

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