Noticeable Improvement

It was inevitable that in the wake of the Buncefield Oil Depot fire, the press wouldn’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Front page news on this morning’s Mirror1 cried “One of the companies in the Hertfordshire oil depot inferno was ordered to correct safety breaches four years ago”. It goes on to explain, “British Pipeline Agency was issued with a compliance order by the Health and Safety Executive in November 2001. It told them to improve “inadequate” bunding – a wall to capture spillages – around an aviation fuel storage tank at Buncefield depot”.

So, what we have here seems to be:

  • A company has been issued with an Improvement Notice (I’m assuming that’s what they mean by “Compliance Order”). The fact that the inspector allowed them 15 months to put it right suggests he wasn’t too concerned.

  • The inspector also didn’t consider the matter serious enough to warrant a Prohibition Notice – an Improvement Notice is serious, but not that serious.
  • A bund is an environmental protection – although the causes of the fire aren’t yet known, it’s pretty unlikely that poor bunding would have contributed to it. Of course the bunding wasn’t poor anyway – it was confirmed complete by the Health and Safety Executive in February 2003

Further down the news story, this all seems to have been kicked off by a Conservative MP, Caroline Spelman, asking whether “there was any connection between the order “for inadequate containment around aviation fuel tanks and eye witnesses reporting fumes at the depot before the explosion”.

Probably not – a bund contains liquid, not fumes. Perhaps Ms Spelman should do a bit of research before she kicks off scare stories – the funny thing is, if the Mirror had bothered to do a bit of basic research, they’d have had a great opportunity for a bit of the Tory-bashing they love, instead of which, they perpetuated the myth.

The truth is that a site coming under COMAH2 regulations only getting one improvement notice in four years is actually a sign of a pretty tightly-run site. These sites are inspected and tested so vigorously that there’s very little scope for anything to go un-noticed so they’ve really done pretty well.

Of course, something caused the explosion and fire, and it’s likely to have been some sort of unsafe action by someone – there are very few accidents which “just happen”, especially in the kind of controlled environment of a top-tier COMAH site. But stupid scare stories don’t help with finding out what really happened, and only serve to divert attention from whatever the real cause turns out to have been.

1 I don’t have time to read a paper, so I don’t buy one – I just skim through whatever’s in the office.
2 Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999.

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