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Petrochemical Plant (Braefoot Bay And Moss Morran)

Volume 975: debated on Wednesday 5 December 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

10.30 pm

I feel that, with the Under-Secretary of State replying to the debate, it is appropriate that we should commence where we left off at Question Time on 21 November. It will give him a chance—and I hope that he will take it—to refute The Sunday Times article which alleged a downgrading of the environmental aspects of the developments at Moss Morran and Braefoot Bay.

We are not solely, or even mainly, concerned with dealing with the environment. We are concerned primarily with the safety aspects, and we note that in relation to the siting of these developments the judgment was that a compelling consideration of national interest decreed that these developments should proceed. Given that we know that there is no such thing as a risk-free society, the people working in these plants and living in their vicinity are entitled to know the risk faced by them and their families and whether these risks have increased with the siting of the plants. To quote Lord Rothschild's Richard Dimbleby lecture,
"We need an index of risks, don't we?"
I propose to deal with two broad areas: first, the hazard and operability studies, and, secondly, some of the planning aspects. In his letter of 9 August 1979 to the developers, the Secretary of State specifically rejected what I call in shorthand a Canvey Island type of investigation. That was the investigation into the potential hazards from the operations in the Canvey Island-Thurrock area. It was an extensive survey, costing about £400,000. I can see that there may be difficulties in adopting that type of approach, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary is aware that an extrapolation of the Canvey approach, carried out by competent people in the Dunfermline area and checked by experts, would show a significantly higher degree of risk in relation to the Shell-Esso projects.

I turn to the specific planning requirement laid down by the Secretary of State, namely,
"A full, independent hazard and operability audit in relation to the design and construction of the NGL feed line within the site, NGL plant product pipeline and terminal facilities shall be carried out to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State prior to the commissioning of the plants. Operation of the facilities shall not begin until any requirements of the Secretary of State in the light of this audit have been complied with."
Taking it at its face value, I suggest that this is a strict planning condition. What exactly does it mean?

I plead in aid a publication of the Chemical Industries Association "A Guide to Hazard and Operability Studies", prepared by ICI and edited by, amongst others, representatives of BP Chemicals Limited and Shell Chemicals (UK) Limited.

The definition of a hazard and operability study—it is rather technical and I apologise, but these are highly technical and complicated matters—given in this guide, is:
"The application of a formal, systematic, critical examination to the process and engineering intentions of new or existing facilities to access the hazard potential of mal-operation or mal-function of individual items of equipment and their consequential effects on the facility as a whole."
That takes a little bit of swallowing and digestion, but I hope that the Minister has got the general drift of it. I hope that he will say whether he accepts that definition. As to the techniques of such a study, the CIA guide states:
"By far the best time to carry out a study is at the design freeze stage".
My interpretation of that is that it should mean either before construction or at least when construction is at an early stage, because, as the guide continues:
"At this stage sufficient detail has been formally given to the design intention to allow the essentially questioning mechanism of the hazard and operability studies to obtain meaningful answers. At the same time it is possible to change the plan design without incurring unnecessary expense".
It is again fair to ask the Minister whether he accepts that, because he is on record as saying that the Secretary of State will not delegate or remove any responsibilities that he may have on the matter. In view of this assertion, does the Minister as this stage know whether the design for these particular plants and terminal has been frozen, and have the terms of reference now been agreed—after four months from the letter of 9 August to today—for the
"full independent hazard and operability audit"?
To develop the argument a bit further, my firm view, after fairly extensive consultations, is that the whole process of such an audit is eventually to provide a quantitative analysis that will give a degree of risk that will be acceptable for the plant in relation to the people working in it and to the general public. To my mind that is the key issue, and it is the apparent evasion of that issue which causes my constituents, among others, great concern.

By way of illustration—I am sure the Minister will be aware of the correspondence—I should like to quote from two letters emanating from the Health and Safety Executive to one of my constituents. The first is dated 1 September 1978 and reads:
"As you are probably aware the fire and explosion risks associated with the proposed developments received full discussion at the public inquiry and the Deputy Chief Reporter concluded as follows:
'I accept the evidence of Cremer and Warner, the Health and Safety Executive and witnesses for the applicants that no novel technology is involved in these processes. Cremer and Warner and the Health and Safety Executive believe that the plants can be designed and operated so that they should not result in an undue hazard effect on the community provided that adequate safeguards are agreed and ensured. These expert witnesses agreed that the acceptable degree of risk which a community should be asked to accept should be such that a dangerous incident which could cause injury to a member of public outside the site boundary should not occur more than once in a million years. This is roughly the equivalent to the natural risk of being struck by lightning.' "
However, in another letter, of 20 October 1978, the same writer from the Health and Safety Executive says:
"In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding on this matter, the Director-General of the Health and Safety Executive has recently written to the Secretary of State for Scotland pointing out that it has not been demonstrated to us that the proposed development can be carried out while keeping the probability of a serious accident below one chance in a million a year".
As a layman, I find a contradiction in those statements, but perhaps the Minister, with his greater legal knowledge, can indicate how to reconcile them. My constituents are at least due that from him tonight. If it is not now to be one chance in a million per year, what is the acceptable risk factor? If it is not 10-6, is it 10-5or 10-4? What is the answer?

I now turn briefly to some planning matters. What exactly is included in the orbit of the condition? It seems in terms of the annex and the letters to which I have referred that it ends at terminal facilities, but should it not also include the liquefied petroleum gas carriers? These ships are an essential part of the installation and must be subject to the audit. Indeed, at the public inquiry I laid great stress, because of my engineering background, on the fact that that area, where we are talking about the loading of these gas carriers, is, if not the most vulnerable, certainly an area of high priority in terms of assessment of risk.

Further, may we have legal clarification of the condition? For instance, how far is it legally enforceable against the developers by the Secretary of State and by an individual member of the public? As it stands, it seems to me to be lacking in both precision and enforceability. Perhaps the Minister, with his greater legal knowledge, can clear up this matter.

I am fortified in this debate by the publication today of the second report of the advisory committee on major hazards. It deals with, among other things, the state of the art in connection with an important hazard related to the developments under consideration, the behaviour of unconfined vapour cloud explosions, and says:
"In recent years increasing effort and resources have been devoted to searching for a better understanding of the formation, behaviour and explosion of vapour clouds and we have reviewed the evidence that we have been able to obtain. Our work has been assisted by a recent study of the problem by Marshall but it must be said at the outset that the information is far from complete or conclusive and will inevitably remain so for many years to come."
That issue was raised at the inquiry. I accept that we are talking about an industry with a noble record. Much of the information that I have given to the House tonight came from the industry itself.

I do not believe that the people involved are foolish enough to build plants that will be hazardous to the workers or the general public. They will be extremely cautious and concerned about the well-being of the workers and the local community. However, there are many unknown factors and many imponderables. I am not unmindful of the condition of the industry, nor am I unmindful that we require this development in the national interest. Indeed, it will bring substantial benefit to Fife and to Scotland as a whole.

We owe it to my constituents and others, in the name of freedom of information, to urge the Minister to clarify the aims and objects of the hazard and operability audit. I should like to pledge that all the details of such an audit will be open to public scrutiny and comment.

I apologise for relying on notes, but this is a highly technical matter. It places a layman at great disadvantage in relation to the Government and to the local authorities. The Government have a responsibility not only for this type of development but to set at rest the minds of people in these areas by being forthcoming. I know that it is difficult for a Minister to keep in touch with the developers and the local authorities. I hope that the Minister will respond on the lines that I have suggested. I hope that he will indicate what he has in mind for the hazard and operability audit.

10.48 pm

The hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) has raised this subject so that we can continue our exchange of 21 November. He has raised the matter in his capacity as a constituency Member, but the Moss Morran and Braefoot Bay project is of interest to many hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies. That is confirmed by the number of my hon. Friends, and the Opposition spokesman, who are attending this debate.

There is an inevitable and unfortunate constraint on what I can say this evening because of the appeal by some of the objectors which is before the court. That limits the issues that can be discussed freely. The appeal is due to be heard on 29 January. Until then, discretion is necessary.

The Secretary of State's decision on the planning application is final, as it is in all such cases, and it is not possible to add to the reasons given by the Secretary of State in the letter sent to the applicants. However, I shall try to be as helpful as possible and answer as many of the specific questions as I can. The hon. Member for Dunfermline asked why in this case the Canvey Island experiment or analysis was not carried out. The initial decision was taken by the present Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craighton (Mr. Millan). I accept that my right hon. Friend endorsed that decision and came to the same conclusion.

The Secretary of State considered carefully the request for a full hazard analysis at Moss Morran and Braefoot Bay, similar to that conducted at Canvey. However, he decided that this was not necessary in advance of the decision which he made on the outline planning permission on 9 August. His reasons were that the three planning authorities had already obtained from a firm of independent consultants a full impact analysis covering safety and other factors.

Secondly—and here I am agreeing with the point raised by the hon. Member for Dunfermline—until there is a detailed design, the safety of the proposed plant cannot be finally determined. This is a point which the Secretary of State accepted and which clearly, from the remarks he made, the hon. Member also accepts. In addition, as one of the planning conditions, the Secretary of State has laid down that before commissioning the plant the companies should arrange for a full, independent hazard and operability audit to his satisfaction.

In answer to another point raised by the hon. Member, I can say specifically that the plant will not be allowed to operate until any requirements of the Secretary of State, in the light of that audit, have been met. As an additional safeguard, the Health and Safety Executive will have to be satisfied that the plants have been designed, installed and constructed and will be operated and maintained so as to comply with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. In view of these thorough safeguards, the Secretary of State did not consider that a Canvey-type assessment was necessary in advance of his decision in August.

Let me now give some indication as to how the hazard and operability audit fits into the planning permission that has been granted. Condition 24 attached to the planning permission for the natural gas liquids separation plant at Moss Morran and its associated jetty at Braefoot Bay states:
"A full independent hazard and operability audit in relation to the design and construction of the natural gas liquids feed line within the site, natural gas liquids plant, product pipelines and terminal facilities shall be carried out to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State prior to the commissioning of the plant. Operation of the facilities shall not begin until any requirements of the Secretary of State in the light of this audit have been complied with."
Indeed, paragraph 11 of the decision letter stated that the Secretary of State would consult the Health and Safety Executive and the local authorities before deciding whether the hazard audit had been adequate and the safety level revealed by the audit was acceptable.

The letter went on to state that the Health and Safety Executive would, in addition, assess these reports and conduct discussions and inspections with a view to satisfying itself that the plants had been designed, installed and constructed and will be operated and maintained so as to comply with the requirements in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. If the Health and Safety Executive assessment of the detailed design of the proposed development shows this not to be the case, it has the powers available to it under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act to take appropriate action.

There is, therefore, a dual control over the question of safety. Normally a developer would have to satisfy the Health and Safety Executive that his plant could be operated safely. In this case and this is an exceptional safeguard—the Secretary of State also has to be satisfied on the basis of an audit carried out to his satisfaction by a firm of independent consultants. It was the Secretary of State's view that with such a strong and continuing statutory safeguard in existence, together with the requirement for a full hazard audit to his satisfaction, there should be no question of an unacceptable risk emerging as a result of the development.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Member made reference to the report in The Sunday Times that purported to suggest that the Government were seeking to downgrade environmental considerations in order to push this project through. In answer to that allegation, may I say that the conditions that we have laid down in the outline planning permission go well beyond the requirements and conditions proposed by the previous Secretary of State in the original decision letter of 29 March 1978. The previous Secretary of State would have left it entirely to the local authority to decide whether the safety audit had been satisfactory.

Our condition is much stronger. It requires that the Secretary of State shall also be satisfied, and states that
"Operation of the facilities shall not begin until any requirements of the Secretary of State in the light of this audit"
and the safety level revealed by it
"have been complied with."
The hon. Member asked whether this safeguard was legally enforceable. It is quite straightforward. Unless the Secretary of State has given his approval, the applicants will not be able to go ahead with the proposals that they wish to implement. The Secretary of State has complete power to determine this. This illustrates his deep concern on the question of safety. Far from this Government having downgraded environmental considerations, we have given them greater weight than the previous Secretary of State intended.

The hon. Member also raised the question of what I might call the "quantification of risk—what should be considered an acceptable level of risk when the Secretary of State ultimately comes to his decision? There are various ways of going about a hazard operability audit. Discussions are going on at present on the form and scope of the audit. Risks will be quantified where appropriate as an aid to reaching conclusions on whether processes and designs are safe. Comprehensive and comparable data may not exist on every aspect of a proposed development, and judgments based on experience must also be made on the safety of a proposal.

The letter to the applicants made it quite clear that the decision of the Secretary of State would take into account the level of safety revealed as a result of the hazard and operability analysis. Clearly it is necessary to await the results of that analysis before the Secretary of State comes to a judgment.

I shall give way to the hon. Member, but he will appreciate that it will limit my opportunity to reply to all his other points.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way and for being so forthcoming on this aspect. Can he say whether the terms of reference of this hazard and operability audit have been determined, because we must surely be past the design stage?

In terms of the normal planning procedures and the letter which the Secretary of State sent to the applicants giving outline planning permission, it is quite clearly the obligation of the applicants themselves to instruct an independent body to carry out the hazard and operability analysis. As the applicants themselves will be employing the independent body, it is for them to give instructions about what must be considered. Having said that, I must point out that clearly there will be opportunities for the Health and Safety Executive to make its views known, if it is asked to do so. But it is not for the Secretary of State—nor could it ever be for him—to give detailed instructions to the independent body that will be carrying out the analysis. Clearly those who are giving the instructions will take account of the considerations that the Secretary of State has said are important and which will be crucial in enabling him to come to a decision on this matter.

The developers have not yet appointed an independent body, but I understand that discussions are now taking place among the planning authorities, the developers and the Health and Safety Executive on both the form and the scope of the study. When the audit is completed, the Secretary of State will consult the local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive on whether the study has been adequate and whether the safety level revealed by the audit is acceptable. Obviously at this stage it is not possible to say precisely what form the audit will take, but the Secretary of State will expect it to cover thoroughly all aspects of the operation and the facilities in such a way that he can decide whether they meet an acceptable level of safety.

I would expect the consultants to gather whatever information they think necessary to present such a comprehensive appraisal. It would not be proper for me to state in detail how I expect this audit to be carried out or to suggest that there is any one way in which the Secretary of State can be satisfied that an adequate audit has been carried out. This is a matter on which we will, to a considerable extent, be guided by the advice of the Health and Safety Executive, which has the statutory responsibility. Through the executive we are kept in touch with developments on the audit. The audit will identify any safety problems which need to be brought to the attention of the emergency services, and they will then be in a position to devise solutions.

Another planning condition deals with the requirement to carry out comprehensive tests on the question of radio transmissions and whether there is any safety problem connected with that.

Clearly the audit is not something which we are commissioning. The Secretary of State is not paying for it. It is being prepared by the applicants through the independent body that they have commissioned for this purpose. As it is not our audit, I am unable to say whether it will be published. It is not a Government document. The hon. Member will have to await the outcome.

Finally, I comment on the question of shipping, to which the hon. Member referred. There is certainly no specific reference to shipping being required to be considered by the independent hazard and operability audit, but I think it would be reasonable to assume that this is one aspect of the whole matter that—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eleven o'clock.