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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What if Buncefield had been an oil tanker rather than an oil depot?

The tragic and terrible explosion and fire last weekend at Buncefield near Hemel Hempstead in England makes for an interesting comparison with the oil tanker industry during a marine disaster. The bravery and dedication of the fire fighters is unquestionable. But the circumstances surrounding the disaster (training of local firefighters and availability of suitable foam, environmental preparedness) are more questionable. Moreover the public and press seem much more forgiving of those involved in a land-based environmental disaster than those involved in a shipping pollution disaster. The quantity of oil involved? Reportedly about 60 million litres (about 45,000 tonnes) of oil worth some GBP 200 million, in a depot that handles 2.37 million tonnes of oil a year – as the newspapers put it, “the same as nearly five supertankers”. 

Some things sound very much the same as the coverage of the Braer in the Shetland Islands (wrecked right under the cliffs), and the Aegean Sea in La Coruna (explosion and fire near residential area). Extracts from the coverage in the Times and London’s Evening Standard talk of "the environmental effect of toxic smoke as explosions ripped through oil tanks … an airborne oil slick casting a grey pall over surrounding villages … fumes tainting the air catching the breath and stinging the throat … effect on surrounding houses and residents – cuts and bruises, shattered windows and in some cases walls". And the dirty and toxic rain of Hemel Hempstead is perhaps almost on a par with the oil-laden spray from the Braer disaster which sprinkled the surrounding fields with crude oil.  

However other things point to a lack of readiness … "insufficient preparation of fire fighters and local authorities as fire brigades all over the U.K. despatch 250,000 litres of aqueous film-forming foam concentrate to Hertfordshire" … "the environmental considerations of huge volumes of water and foam passing through the ground into an underground aquifer (and into a river) only seem to have been considered after the explosions". 

The public and the press are still not well-informed about the oil industry, even when it comes to a land-based incident. The Deputy Prime Minister was informed enough about the oil industry to talk repeatedly of “hydrocardigans” instead of hydrocarbons. The storage depot has frequently been referred to as an oil refinery (rather like bulkers are called tankers if they pollute).  

But unlike a tanker disaster, there is, so far at least, little speculation about the cause of the incident. One newspaper writes, "It is possible that we will never find out what really happened," without any further reaction at all! The only speculation so far comes from a few tanker drivers who have theories about electrical fires. 

But above all there has been almost no mention of the owners/operators of the depot, Total and Chevron, let alone an intensive raking over of their past environmental and safety records. There appears to have been lack of preparation for such an event - insufficient barriers around the tanks; houses permitted to be built far too close to the depot; a lack of environmental readiness. Even a lack of knowledge of what is/was contained in one of the tanks. There have so far been no depot officials or oil company employees treated as criminals and placed under arrest for negligence and imprisoned until the trial. 

Contact: Bill Box