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Health and safety failings could have caused deaths at Bacton blast, Norwich court hears

07 July 2011

The serious failings which led to a massive explosion at Bacton Gas Terminal have been revealed as energy giant Shell UK faced prosecution over the near tragedy.

Andrew Marshall, prosecuting, said management at the plant had been “sleepwalking into danger”. Shell UK previously admitted seven breaches of health and safety and environmental regulations following the explosion and subsequent fire.

The company has admitted to failing to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and limit the consequences to people and the environment; it admitted failing to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety and welfare at work of its employees at the Bacton site and also failing to ensure that those people not employed by Shell were not exposed to health and safety risks.

In a fourth charge, Shell admitted failing to operate in accordance with an Integrated Pollution Control authorisation by not maintaining plant and equipment, namely separator vessel VG110 and associated equipment, in good operating condition.

Shell also admitted failing to comply with a pollution control regulation by failing to notify the Environment Agency on the failure or malfunction of the separator vessel VG110 which could cause significant pollution.

The company also admitted failing to comply with a pollution prevention control permit by failing to prevent emissions of run-off and fire-fighting foam and also admitted a final charge of failing to comply with a pollution prevention control permit between May 2007 and February 2008 by failing to provide staff with sufficient training and levels of competence properly to operate the Environmental Waste Treatment Plant.

The company runs one of the three gas plants which feed the national grid at Bacton, accounting for around one-third of the country’s gas.

On February 28, 2008 an explosion at Shell’s waste water treatment plant, on Paston Road, shook the north Norfolk coast at 5.42pm and more than 70 firefighters from across the county were called to the gas plant to quell the subsequent blaze.

The blast blew the concrete roof off the buffer tank with “quite considerable” force, throwing concrete parts as far as 100m away.

Mr Marshall said: “Plant personel were swapping for the late shift and were out of the way. So it is only by good fortune that nobody was killed or hurt or that worse damage was suffered.”

The waste water treatment plant includes a VG110 separator vessel, which is part of the process to separate “dirty” water with chemicals in that can’t be put back into the sea and “less dirty” water which can be cleaned to be allowed back out to sea.

This skims the North Sea Condensate, a highly-flamable hydro-carbon if it is ignited in the right conditions, away from the sea water it is used with to cool the systems that the gas is collected with at the plant.

The North Sea Condensate is collected and taken away from Bacton in tankers, but it must be carefully maintained after its collection, to ensure the right mixture of oxygen is mixed with it to prevent it becoming combustible. In this instance a failure of the equipment meant the chemical reached an unsafe level, which led to the explosion.

But several examples were given in court of how management were warned that the VG110 was allowing too much of the chemical to be collected where it shouldn’t have been and old, corroded equipment was even allowing the chemical to mix with the clean water again.

Lots of basic errors in these systems were revealed such as temperature measures being wrongly placed and an automatic setting on the VG110 failing but then being used in manual mode, against manufacturers’ advice, which relied on someone manually preventing the chemical reaching critical temperatures.

Meanwhile an estimated 850 tonnes of fire water, fire fighting foam and North Sea Condensate that went into the sea after the explosion, because of a faulty sea wall gate that the Environment Agency had originally advised wasn’t satisfactory in 2004.

The general theme of warnings not being heeded by management at the Shell plant dominated the first day of the sentencing.

Mr Marshall continued, by saying that management at the plant were: “Sleepwalking into danger, no matter what was brought to their attention.

“What is not in doubt is that what took place could have been fatal for those in the vicinity of this lethal blast.

“The Crown estimates that 10 people could have been killed and that is not taking into account the injuries, serious injuries and further issues that can follow from such a situation.”

Fortunately, however, the human effects of the incident actually ended up being reasonably minimal and Mr Marshall went on to explain how the explosion could have had far worse human and environmental effects.

He added: “This is not a case where the quantity of chemicals that went into the North Sea caused an observable environmental effect, such as an oil spill on a coastline, and we are not suggesting that this comes into the same category.

“But the fire, heat and noise all caused the environmental damage of a massive incident.
“It also caused public alarm and not for what had just happened, but also the long-term effect, that it is in people’s minds and memories.” The hearing continues.

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