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Chemical, Gas And Oil Installations

Volume 892: debated on Friday 23 May 1975

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12.20 p.m.

On 1st June last year, the Nypro chemical plant at Flixborough exploded, killing 28 people and injuring 36 others. Hundreds more outside the plant were injured, though, fortunately, none were killed, and property was damaged over a very wide area.

Last week saw the publication of the report of the court of inquiry set up to establish the causes and circumstances of the disaster and to point out any lessons which might be learned.

As regards what the report has to say about the precise cause of the disaster, I understand that there has already been some criticism from experts. I shall make no comment on that score. This is more properly a subject for the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), who alone can speak with full knowledge of the localised aspects of this tragic happening.

I am concerned, however, with the lessons which might be learned for those communities elsewhere who are obliged to live in dangerous and unhealthy proximity, not only to a single hazardous installation but to concentrations of them. I submit that for such communities it is of the utmost importance that the lessons are learned and that appropriate action is taken as quickly as possible.

One such community is located at Canvey Island, in my constituency. I shall not repeat here in detail what I have told the House at length on other occasions about the totality of risk that my constituents face. Suffice it to say that at Canvey, 31,500 people share a small island of 4,400 acres with the largest methane storage plant in the country and extensive chemical, gas and oil storage, containing up to 121 million gallons of highly inflammable, potentially destructive and toxic material. With the introduction of two new oil refineries, the quantity of that material will leap to 365 million gallons.

Moreover, the island, which at high spring tide is 5 feet below sea level, is linked with the mainland by only two access routes, each of which converges at a single roundabout. It is enmeshed in a web of hazards, for there are jetties handling hazardous ships' cargoes, a network of oil and gas pipelines, ammunition loading in the estuary, and, on the mainland immediately to the west, the huge Thurrock oil complex.

The Flixborough report frankly concedes that
"no plant can be made absolutely safe".
It follows, surely, that where there is an existing agglomeration of hazards of the kind that I have mentioned and where it has been made plain over and over again that its extension is socially unacceptable to the local population, no additional hazard should be permitted. But at Canvey this is precisely what successive Governments have permitted over the years.

Indeed, the position is worse than it was at Flixborough. At Flixborough, there was a single plant situated in a thinly inhabited area. As the report says, the siting of the Nypro works
"was fortunate. Had they been in a densely populated area there is no doubt that death and serious injury would have been on a much greater scale".
At Canvey, however, there is a concentration of hazards in a densely populated area.

It is true that at Canvey there is at present a glimmer of hope, since, after I brought the issue to a head last July, the present Secretary of State for the Environment became seized of the gravity of our position and ordered an exploratory inquiry into the feasibility of revoking planning permission for one of the two oil refineries that we are being forced to accept. That inquiry took place in February and we are now awaiting the verdict.

I wish to be fair to those who operate existing hazardous installations on Canvey Island or anywhere else. The Flixborough report asserts that
"At no point in the inquiry was there any evidence that the chemical industry, or Nypro in particular, was not conscious of its responsibilities relative to safety. On the contrary, there were indications that conscious and positive steps were continually taken with this object in mind."
The same may be said about existing high-risk installations on Canvey. The Essex County Council, which has been the licensing authority since 1st April last year, assures me that it has been maintaining careful surveillance. In the last year it has carried out a total of 17 inspections.

The fact remains that however well conducted these existing installations may be each represents a significant hazard in itself, made acutely more so by being in juxtaposition with others and close to the sea wall, which, if breached, would lead to the additional hazards of flooding evacuation.

Despite the assurances that have been given about the licensing system, the Flixborough report reveals that much of the hazardous material at the Nypro plant was unlicensed, which means that the local authorities were unaware of the extent of the hazards. The report says bluntly that
"We regard the present situation relating both to storage and the use of hazardous materials as unsatisfactory."
That begs a number of questions.

Why was the licensing system ineffective at Flixborough? Who was responsible for flouting the law? Are there any other plants similar to that at Flixborough where the licensing system is ineffective and where the local authorities are unaware of the extent of the hazards?

It may be that, in the past, for commercial reasons there has been a reluctance on the part of some industrial companies freely to divulge details of their holdings of hazardous materials. What is being done to overcome this reluctance by ensuring confidentiality while at the same time insisting on compliance with the licensing system?

It may be that the weakness is elsewhere. For example, even where licensing authorities are aware of all the dangerous products stored at particular sites, how well equipped are they technically to judge whether specific materials should be housed on the same site? I hope that the Minister will agree that in view of what the report says it is imperative to restore public confidence in the licensing system.

There is another anxiety which is not referred to in the report but which should cause us concern. Linking Canvey's existing gas, chemical and oil storage facilities is a network of pipelines. Believe it or not, the gas pipeline linking the methane plant to the national gas grid runs for part of its distance along the top of the seawall, until it adjoins the oil storage area. Thereafter, it runs in close parallel with the main United Kingdom oil pipeline in a narrow band between the seawall and the site of the new Occidental Oil Refinery.

It is not too fanciful, I suggest, to regard these pipelines as a powder trail in an area where the danger of fire always lurks. Yet, incredibly, no reference was made by the then Secretary of State for the Environment to the existence of these pipelines when giving planning permission to the Occidental Oil Company in 1973. It was all too easily assumed that questions of fire and safety were covered by the licensing system. The buck was passed.

I can find no evidence that the implications of these interlinking pipes were ever properly considered. Clearly the matter cannot be left there.

I wish to know, therefore,. what specific action is being taken to measure the safety or otherwise of these pipeline systems in situations where there is an accumulation of known hazards. Can the Health and Safety Commission be asked to look into the matter without delay?

I turn now to another hazard which is touched on in the Flixborough report, namely, the dangers that arise from the sudden release of inflammable gas or toxic fumes. Let us consider, first, what happened at Flixborough. The report tells us that the cause of the disaster was the ignition of a massive vapour cloud formed by the escape of cyclohexane, heated and under pressure, but what the report does not tell us is what the threat of a vapour cloud meant for the people living outside the plant, in some cases five or six miles away from the centre of the explosion, and what, therefore, are the possible implications for other communities living in endangered environments.

Following the explosion at Flixborough, 3,000 people were evacuated from within a radius of three miles. I understand, however, that had there been a slight eastward shift of the wind, 3,000 more would have had to move from their homes. If the wind had veered to the north, it would have been necessary to evacuate perhaps as many as 80,000 people, requiring the rescue resources of two counties.

Yet at Flixborough, the total population living within one mile of the Nypro plant is 400; at Canvey, the comparable number would be 3,600. The number living within five miles of the Nypro plant is about 45,000; in our case, it would be more than 80,000. The village of Flixborough was partly screened by rising ground; there is no such protection for the people at Canvey, since the island is completely flat. What is more, at Flixborough evacuation was possible in several directions. Canvey, on the other hand, is an island, with escape possible in only one direction. It may be argued that we do not have the same chemical processes on Canvey that led to the explosion at Flixborough. That is true. But we have a situation where a vapour cloud could arise and serious danger would occur.

Let me spell this out. We have a methane plant which stores over 100,000 tons of liquified methane in tanks. Every five days stocks are replenished, with 12,000 tons brought by a tanker from overseas. On 6th December 1974 an empty coaster collided with one of these tankers. Fortunately, no damage was done. But it seems clear that if the collision had resulted in the tanker's hull being pierced, it is likely that there would have been a major disaster. Liquified methane would have poured into the estuary, vapourising on contact with the water and expanding into a highly flammable cloud which, since our prevailing winds are south-westerly, would have spread over the island and been ignitable until it was dispersed. All that would happen over one of the largest concentrations of oil, gas and chemical storage in this country, and a large resident population.

Listen carefully to what the report said about hazards of this kind:
"Although unconfined vapour-air explosions have been known to happen in other parts of the world, there is a marked scarcity of information about the conditions under which an unconfined vapour cloud can result in an explosion or what is the mechanism leading to such an explosion."
What an extraordinary admission. Here we have a panel of distinguished experts unable to secure information about a hazard to which thousands of people in this country could be exposed at any time.

There have been methane explosions leading to fatalities elsewhere in the world. We know that even empty methane tanks can explode. One did so at Staten Island. New York in February 1973, killing 40 people. Is it not incredible that nobody seems to have bothered to inquire what would happen if anything went wrong with a methane plant in this country? Is it not incredible that successive Governments deliberately encouraged development at Canvey which must bring additional hazards into narrow waters with a long history of collisions and mishaps close to our high fire-risk installations? When will those in authority wake up and realise that it is one thing to operate hazardous industry, which may be unavoidable in an industrialised country such as ours, but quite another to do so alongside a residential population and to permit that population to grow? I trust that the Minister will draw the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to what I have said on this score.

Indeed, there is a further matter which might be usefully drawn to that right hon. Gentleman's attention. Paragraph 222 of the report says:
"In any area where there is a major disaster hazard a disaster plan for the co-ordination of the rescue, fire fighting, police and medical services is desirable. Although all services, it appears to us, work satisfactorily at Flixborough, we were specifically asked to draw attention to this need."
The report suggests that the Special Committee on Major Hazards, which was set up by the Secretary of State after the Flixborough disaster, should look into this matter. There is a disaster plan for Canvey, but I am bound to say that it is utterly unrealistic. It envisages an orderly evacuation which even under ideal conditions would take more than three hours of continuously flowing traffic, using the same road junction which would have to be used by the rescue services trying to come on to the island.

The best answer is surely to limit the risks of anything going wrong, if not actually to eliminate them from the start. The second best answer is to shake up officialdom to the realities of what could happen if anything went wrong. I beg the Minister to press the special committee and the Health and Safety Commission to come to grips with the problem of how to ensure effective disaster emergency arrangements as soon as possible.

I understand that there is a difficulty here. If real progress is to be made and clear responsibilities are to be allocated, it is imperative to secure a clear definition of what constitutes a major hazard. I understand that even now the Health and Safety Commission has not yet received a clear definition from the special committee. Why the delay? The point is important because, as matters stand, there is confusion on the question of who will be responsible for effective fire precautions in situations like that which we face in Canvey. Will the responsible body be the Health and Safety Commission or the fire authority? For the moment no one knows the answer to the question.

believe that it is the declared intention of the commission to assume control over major hazards. I warmly welcome that. That would leave the fire authority responsibility for everything else. However in the absence of a definition as to what is a major hazard, the commission is unable to make progress. Is that really so? A list of major hazards was drawn up in 1972. Has it been brought up to date? Is it realistic? Who gets it?

We repose great hope in the new Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, in the sense that, for the first time, it lays a clear duty and responsibility upon everyone in industry to have regard to safety not only within a plant but in relation to the community around it.

There is, however, a long way to go. The Flixborough report goes to the heart of the matter when it quotes Mr. V. C. Marshall, safety adviser to the Transport and General Workers' Union, who told the court of inquiry that
"Hazard analysis recognises that hazard cannot be entirely eliminated and that it is necessary to concentrate resources on those risks which exceed a specific value."
The report says:
"We agree with this statement, which accords with reality. No plant can be made absolutely safe."
The report goes on to say that when Mr. Marshall referred to risks exceeding a specific value:
"We understand him to refer to risks which exceed what at a given time is regarded as socially tolerable, for what is or is not acceptable depends in the end upon current social tolerance and what is regarded as tolerable at one time may well be regarded as intolerable at another."
Exactly. For my people at Canvey the point of social tolerance has long been passed. Whatever the excuse for building up hazardous industry there in the past alongside a much smaller population, the situation has now totally changed. Existing hazards must be reduced. No new hazards must be added.

That is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be drawn from the Flixborough tragedy. I trust that it will be taken to heart by all who have responsibilities in this grave matter.

12.36 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) for initiating this debate. My concern arises from the close proximity in my constituency of a chemical works, Laporte Industries, to high density dwellings and also a primary school which borders the works.

While the factory, by its very nature, has always been an environmental concern, the Flixborough explosion raised serious fears among the residents and parents of children attending the school when it was learned that cyclohexane was processed at Laporte.

On Saturday, 5th April an explosion occurred at the factory involving the death of one worker and injuries to three others. It is true that this in no way had any connection with cyclohexane, some of which is still stored, but the incident revived all the fears and anxieties to fever pitch.

When I wrote to the Minister about the third week of April I was informed that a report would be available at the end of May. I was told that after the matter had been considered by the Health and Safety Commission:
"The Commission may decide to publish the report under section 14(5) of the Health and Safety at Work Act".
I assure my hon. Friend that the "may" will hardly satisfy my constituents, who feel themselves threatened and who demand a public inquiry into the incident.

There have been requests that the Committee of experts on major hazards should visit the plant and that local residents and councillors should be taken into consultation. The health and safety executive promised to bear that in mind. I strongly urge that only by such inspection and consultation will their fears in any way be allayed.

On 13th May I wrote to the Minister expressing concern arising from the disclosure in paragraph 194(c) of the report on the Flixborough disaster of the storage of potentially dangerous substances without the necessary licences being granted by the local authority under the Petroleum (Consolidated) Act 1928. That was referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

I was told that the matter would be referred to the health and safety executive for consideration. The fact that Nypro virtually bypassed the licensing process raises the question of the position in other chemical works, including those in my own constituency. I can only agree with the conclusion of the report which says:
"We regard the present situation relating both to storage and the use of hazardous materials as unsatisfactory."
The other matter arises from paragraph 220 concerning the siting of plant. The report properly suggests that new plant should be kept away from populated areas taking into consideration the risk of disaster. But in the case of existing plant the suggestion is—and again I quote from the report—that
"present precautions should be critically reviewed and where necessary strengthened."
I urge that such action should be taken at Laporte Industries in my constituency.

12.41 p.m.

I have learned to expect by now that whenever the House debates any matter concerning the use or storage of inflammable or dangerous materials we hear the voice of the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine). As on other occasions, I again pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's vigour, persistence and determination in seeking safeguards for his constituents on Canvey Island.

The Flixborough inquiry report contains many lessons of general importance for the chemical and petroleum industries and it is right that those with responsibilities for large sites at which hazardous materials are handled should examine these lessons closely. If the report leads to a general recognition first that all industrial processes involve some risk, however remote and, secondly, that it is the function of good management and good government to ensure that these remote risks are properly and adequately controlled, these lessons will be well learned.

The hon. Gentleman in his speech drew from the report those recommendations which are of particular concern to those of his constituents who live on Canvey Island. I have noted his points and I shall ensure that the Health and Safety Commission is fully aware of them. The Commission was set up after the explosion and is responsible for an Act which came into force after the explosion. It may help the House if I indicate ways in which the chairman of the Commission sees the new Act dealing with hazards of the kind presented by installations such as those on Canvey Island.

In the past control over storage installations was limited. The Factories Act had two disadvantages: it applied only to factories and it protected only the work-people. The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act had similar limitations. Consequently, the jurisdiction of the Factory Inspectorate might be exercised over only a very small part of a huge installation, and the only real control of the storage was by licence under the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928 and its associated legislation. This too, as has been pointed out, is limited in scope and does not cover many hazardous substances which may well be stored in quantities sufficient to cause concern. The new Act clears up these difficulties and will allow the inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive to consider safety of the site as a whole—as it affects the neighbours as well as the workpeople.

The Flixborough Report recommended a review of the existing regulations for licensing the storage of hazardous materials. This is being considered and, as I told the House on 12th May, the commission has instructed the executive to begin discussions with the local authority associations about the licensing arrangements for these large installations, and whether one authority should be responsible for all aspects of safety.

Is the Minister aware of the statement in this morning's Press that the Nypro company is planning to install a further plant? One thing that emerges from the report is that the local authorities when called upon to give planning consents have not the expertise available to them. Could he say in what way the expertise of the Health and Safety Commission could be made available to local authorities so that they may determine such cases? Will he say a little more about the licensing position at Flixborough, which I am sure will be of assistance to the House?

In the course of my remarks I shall be saying something about licensing arrangements and also about the need for more expertise to be available to local authorities and the way in which they should proceed in the handling of planning applications.

In regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), I know no more about that matter than that which I have read in the national newspapers this morning. One national newspaper said that Nypro had made an application for planning permission to rebuild on the site for the production of capro lactam which was under production in the process involved in the disaster, but I understand that it does not propose to use that process involving oxidation of cyclohexane, but has submitted an application for a less hazardous process involving hydrogenation of phenol. I make those remarks with a view to assuring the people who underwent the terrible experience of the explosion that it is not an application for the reintroduction of the original process. I do not want to say anything that might prejudice the validity of such an application. I agree with my hon. Friend's general point, and I shall say a little more about the matter later in my remarks.

At the time of the explosion the responsibility for the licensing of storage of petroleum had just been transferred from the rural district council to the county council, which is also the fire authority. It is hoped that in the short term the transfer of these functions to the county councils will lead to greater consistency in licensing conditions. In the longer term the executive has plans to review the relevant legislation and this will, of course, be done in consultation with the interested parties, including local authorities. Understandably, there is much public concern about the licensing position at Flixborough concern which I share and which I hope local authorities will bear carefully in mind.

As long as the present licensing arrangements continue, it is crucially important that public confidence in such arrangements should be fully maintained and that nothing should be done by way of omission or otherwise to undermine that confidence.

I turn briefly to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw), who understandably expressed concern on behalf of his constituents who live in the vicinity of the Laporte factory in Ilford. I am very much aware of the concern felt by his constituents arising from the explosion that occurred on those premises on the 5th April. In reply to a Question tabled by my hon. Friend on 29th April, I explained that the chairman of the commission had called for a special report on the accident and that results of certain metallurgical tests were awaited. I am advised that the report is in preparation and should be sent to the commission shortly, but the question whether the report will be published is one for the commission.

The commission has power under Section 15 of the new Act to recommend the making of regulations requiring the licensing of any activity and it will be for it to consider whether use should be made of this method of enforcement. Detailed consideration of individual proposals will no doubt await the recommendations of the committee of experts which, as Members will recall, was set up after the Flixborough explosion to identify the types of installation which have the potential to present a major hazard.

I recognise that the results of the deliberations of the committee of experts are anxiously awaited by industry and by those who may be affected by the activities of industry. The chairman of the committee has assured me that the committee is aware of the urgency of its work, and this debate will impress on him further the need for an early report. But it is essential that the committee's work should not be rushed because on its reports much of the future work of the commission in this field may depend. A wrong decision at this stage may lead to a misdirection of resources. As the Flixborough report states
"it is necessary to concentrate resources on those risks which exceed a specific value",
and it is hoped that the committee will be able to lay down the criteria by which those risks can be identified.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East mentioned the recent exploratory inquiry into the planning permissions granted for petroleum refining on Canvey Island. As he recognised, this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who I understand is awaiting the report of the inspector and will consider the matter when the report has been received. Certainly I will draw this debate to the attention of my right hon. Friend—as the hon. Gentleman has asked of me—and will remind him of the hon. Gentlemen's arguments and the strength of his concern.

While this may be of little consolation to the hon. Gentleman as far as Canvey Island is concerned, arrangements have existed since 1972 by which planning authorities could take the advice of the Factory Inspectorate before granting planning permission in order to ensure that the question of public safety is considered. These arrangements continue. One of the sub-groups of the committee of experts is looking further at planning questions, and officials from the Department of the Environment are represented at this sub-group.

This is a difficult field in which many conflicting interests may have to be reconciled. The committee of experts does not plan to embark on a programme of visits to individual sites. Its aim will be concentrated on the production of guidelines for general policy as distinct from recommendations for dealing with individual places. It will then be for the commission to consider these recommendations, to decide how to translate them into action, and to arrange for them to be applied to the problems of particular sites by the appropriate arm of the Health and Safety Executive.

The question of the installation and routeing of pipelines is a complex one in which various authorities may be concerned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has a prime responsibility under the Pipelines Act 1962 and the Health and Safety Executive also has duties under the Act in relation to safety aspects of pipelines. I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend and of the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission.

The Commission now has responsibility for all places of work and I shall ask the chairman to ensure that the risks which were mentioned are carefully considered during the visits which will be paid by the inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive in the course of their duties.

As I mentioned earlier, some sites at which there may be large-scale storage of hazardous materials will not have been subject to general inspection under the earlier legislation and therefore the full extent of the problems at these large sites is not known. The executive is now arranging for these sites to be identified as a matter of urgency so that the commission can consider action in the light of full information. This matter will, of course, have to be reviewed when the committee of experts has expressed its views on what constitutes a major hazard, but I am assured that this will not inhibit action in appropriate cases.

At Canvey, as at some other sites, there is the added complication of the loading and unloading of hazardous cargoes and the associated shipping movements. The Health and Safety Executive is pursuing this matter by the formation of an interdepartmental committee on the problems of hazardous goods at docks and harbours. That committee has now held a preliminary meeting. I am aware of the concern that is felt in a number of other areas about this matter.

The court of inquiry recommended that every area where there is a major industrial hazard should have a disaster plan. Rightly, the hon. Member for Essex, South East has drawn attention to the particular problems that concern Canvey should—hopefully never—any disaster occur there. Many areas do have such plans, but these may need to be reexamined in the light of the instantaneous rather than escalating disaster at Flixborough. The chairman of the commission tells me that the committee of experts is to look at this aspect of the matter. I hope that now that the report of the court of inquiry has been published, industrial managements will consider the recommendations in the report in the light of the potential hazards from their processes and consult the authorities responsible for the emergency services.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of his fear of a vapour cloud explosion at one of the premises in his constituency causing damage over a wide area and causing damage to other plants, perhaps with disastrous results. The report of the court of inquiry comments upon the lack of information about vapour cloud explosions in open air.

There have been about 40 such explosions recorded over the last 30 years, but, by their very nature, precise information is difficult to come by. I hope that the world-wide interest shown in this disaster will lead to a useful exchange of information within industries and within inspectorates. I am told that the Health and Safety Executive has, since the publication of the report, made approaches to several other countries which have experience in this area.

I must emphasise, however, that the Flixborough vapour cloud explosion in open air arose from the processing of substantial quantities of highly flammable liquid under conditions of high temperature and pressure. The lessons to be learned from this event have been spelled out in the report. Those responsible for the safety in operation of plants with this potential must take steps to reduce the possibility of such a disaster happening again.

Not all the implications of the report are unfavourable for those living near large-scale plants. The report states that
"at no point in the inquiry was there any evidence that the chemical industry was not conscious of its responsibilities relative to safety. On the contrary, there were indications that conscious and positive steps were continually taken with this objective in mind".
It goes on to say that
"if the steps which we have recommended are carried out the risks of any similar disaster, already remote, will be lessened. The disaster was caused wholly by the coincidence of a number of unlikely errors in design and installation of a modification. Such a combination of errors is very unlikely ever to be repeated. Our recommendations should ensure that no similar combination occurs again and that, even if it should do so, the errors would be detected before any serious consequences ensued".
These extracts from the report give some encouragement for those who live near large-scale plants. Of course, it is essential that such plants must be designed, constructed, maintained and operated to the highest standards. Employers must achieve these standards, and the need for vigilance on their part cannot be over emphasised.

In addition, the new framework of law provided by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the new enforcement powers for inspectors, and the restructuring of the inspectorates under the Health and Safety Commission, which gives for the first time the possibility of a unitary control of safety measures, demonstrate our intention that a tragic event like the Flixborough disaster will not happen again.