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Shell UK sentenced over Norfolk gas blast

20 June 2011

Energy giant Shell UK Limited has been ordered by Ipswich Crown Court in England to pay a total of £1.24million in fines and costs over the explosion and fire at its Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk, England in 2008. Experts from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said it was only good fortune that no one was killed or seriously injured in the February 28 blast.

The explosion blew the concrete roof off a buffering tank within the plant, hurling concrete and metal debris over a large area and sucking a nearby drain out of the ground. After investigating the incident HSE and Environment Agency (EA) jointly prosecuted the firm over safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures at the plant leading to the explosion.

The court heard the blast happened shortly before 6pm in the plant’s water treatment plant. 
Ten appliances from Norfolk Fire Service attended the scene and the court heard it was fortunate at the time of the explosion that daytime plant personnel were returning to offices to prepare for shift handovers. Investigators traced the cause of the explosion to a leak of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquid into a part of the plant responsible for treating waste water before discharging it into the sea.

The leak was caused by the failure of a corroded metal separator vessel, which allowed water contaminated with the highly flammable condensate to enter a concrete storage tank where it was heated by an electric heater. The heater’s elements were exposed within the tank, raising the surface temperature significantly causing the explosion and fire. Bacton is operated by several energy companies and houses gas processing plants along with the Interconnector system feeding gas between Britain and Europe. Due to the large quantities of hazardous substances present on the site, Shell Bacton is classified as a top tier site under the Control of Major Accident Hazard (COMAH) regulations. 

The court heard that during the incident there was an unauthorised release into the North Sea of 850 tonnes of fire water and fire fighting foam which ought to have been prevented. 
Shell UK had failed to close the sea gate until about an hour after the fire started. It also failed to notify the Environment Agency, as required, meaning that valuable advice on environmental protection during the incident or its aftermath was not available to either Shell or the fire service – an emergency response priority first identified in 2004. The delay in notification also meant an assessment of environmental harm was not possible. At an earlier hearing Shell pleaded guilty to seven charges covering safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures at the plant which led to the blast. Shell UK was fined a total of £1million and ordered to pay £242,000 costs. After sentencing, 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.”

Environment Agency Environment Manager for Norfolk and Suffolk Marcus Sibley said:
“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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