Questions still unanswered in Buncefield probe

The first report from the team directed to report on the Buncefield oil depot explosion shows there is still a long way to go before the full environmental impacts of the disaster are known.

While the report hints that bunds deployed to contain contaminated water and foam used to fight the huge blaze may not have been as successful as anticipated, it falls short of saying they failed.

Its authors take pains to point out the report is not a final analysis of the accident, nor indeed even an official initial report, but more a progress update.

“The report does not describe how what happened occurred,” Taff Powell, Buncefield Investigation Manager says in its introduction.

“This is because I am not in a position to say anything with sufficient confidence for it to be other than a line of inquiry amongst others.

“Speculating publicly on causation would be undesirable because I am not in a position to confirm the likelihood of the theory, nor to deal authoritatively with the implications arising out of the theory.

“It may also lead to nugatory remedial actions by depot operators. I believe verification is required from records of fuel movement and storage to confirm any theory related to loss of containment, not least of all because this may alter the balance between system and mechanical failure, and this knowledge is vital in formulating a competent response to the Buncefield incident.”

Official statements at the time suggested the accident might not have been an environmental disaster on the scale that apocalyptic images of the tower of smoke suggested (see related story).

As most of the fuel burned, rather than spilling into the soil, the impact on surrounding land and the water table was likely to be limited – or so the argument went.

But this week’s report from the Major Incident Investigation Board (MIIB) gives the first glimpse of the problem.

The report says that while the Environment Agency and Fire and Rescue Service worked together to develop a plan to minimise the potential for firewater run-off, including recirculating cooling water, concerns that some of the liquid would escape were heightened by the presence of a nearby drinking water aquifer.

Some material did indeed leave the site into neighbouring Three Cherry Trees Lane, the report continues, but the EA believe most of this was contained by the natural contours of the land, which prevented it reaching surface waters.

Pollution of the nearby River Ver was low and no impact on its fish and animal life has been seen.

From the start of the incident both the Meteorological Office and EA worked to model the plume of smoke and provided data on the likely direction of its drift and ground level concentrations.

Air pollution in London and the Home Counties was measured by four regional air quality monitoring networks made up of over 130 separate sites.

The data is being managed by King’s College, London, and a number of parameters were measured including particulates.

Air samples have been sent to the lab and the results are still awaited.

While the analysis of the accident is ongoing, the Health and Safety Executive and industry groups have said lessons are already being learned.

Kevin Allars, head of HSE’s chemical industries division, said: “HSE has formed an inspection team charged with developing a targeted and nationally consistent action plan, based on operators revisiting the safety reviews at their sites, ensuring that relevant good practice precautions are in place and fully operational and that appropriate measures are implemented for responding to, and dealing with, emergencies involving loss of containment.

“HSE will be meeting with key industry trade associations over the next few days to ensure that the programme gains maximum gearing from the industry, and to continue to encourage them to work with their members to review and to promote the sharing of information from dangerous occurrences.”

The Chemicals Industry Association (CIA) issued a statement saying it was also keen to learn and share.

Steve Elliott, the association’s director general, said: “I am pleased to see the early publication of this progress report. It enables us to consider what practical actions we can take with our members to ensure risks to their employees, the public and the environment are being actively managed.

“In line with our Responsible Care Guiding Principles, we wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity to work with the regulators, so that something positive comes from this incident, to improve everyone’s safety.”

by Sam Bond

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