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Oil Depot Explosion (Hemel Hempstead)

3.32 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the explosion yesterday morning at the oil depot near Hemel Hempstead.

I am sure that all Members will join me in thanking the emergency services, the voluntary services, local authority staff, Government officials and local people for the magnificent way in which they responded to the event—with speed, efficiency and dedication. I visited the site yesterday afternoon on my way down from Hull and spoke to the chief constable, Frank Whitely, and the chief fire officer, Roy Wilsher. I also met staff from the other agencies involved in the incident. I was impressed by how well organised they were, and how they were getting on with a very difficult job. I stressed that the Government would provide the support and assistance needed to tackle the fire, and I reported back to the Prime Minister last night.

The scale of the situation is obvious from the powerful images that we have seen on television. The emergency services and other agencies are working together to tackle the fire. The facts are these. At about five past six yesterday morning, there was a huge explosion at the Buncefield fuel depot, on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. The site is about 1 km from junction 8 of the M1. The cause of the explosion is not yet known. It is thought to have been an accident, but we shall need a full investigation by the Health and Safety Executive in due course.

The explosion and the fire have totally destroyed the north side of the oil storage terminal. Twenty oil tanks have been destroyed, but the remaining tanks on the southern part of the terminal have been protected from fire. There has been considerable structural damage to the buildings on the surrounding industrial estate, and some homes up to three miles away have been damaged. Casualties have fortunately been remarkably light, largely because the explosion happened early on a Sunday morning. Yesterday, 43 people were treated in hospital; only two of them were seriously injured and only one now remains in hospital, in a stable condition.

As in all major incidents, the police established a "gold" command to bring together the emergency services and other key agencies. It is in Welwyn Garden City. In addition, the Government's eastern regional resilience team has provided a direct link with central Government, local authorities and voluntary agencies.

The initial focus was to secure the area and stop the blaze from spreading. About 100 police officers and 100 firefighters were at the scene yesterday, and about 150 firefighters from 12 different fire and rescue services are tackling the blaze today. They are succeeding in putting out fires in 10 of the 20 fuel tanks. About 250,000 litres of foam were used this morning, and more supplies are on the way. The fire services believe that they have enough foam to smother the fire and prevent it from starting again.

The scale of the incident was such that local resources were not sufficient, so the House will be grateful to fire brigades across the country that responded so quickly to calls for help. I also want to thank the people who are co-ordinating the response across the country so effectively.
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I am pleased to tell the House that the high-volume pumping equipment, which was used so effectively in the Carlisle floods in January, has again proved vital. Just one of those high-volume pumps does the work of 18 traditional fire engines and it can pump water over a distance of some three miles. The new equipment was provided by my Department under the New Dimension programme for precisely those kinds of major emergencies.

The fire has had a number of wider consequences—in particular, health issues, the impact on fuel supplies and the provision of other public services. It has generated a large plume of smoke, which has spread widely. The plume is largely made up of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. As the fire comes under control and as the heat reduces, there may be an increase in smoke locally. While I am advised that the plume is not toxic, the smoke is certainly unpleasant and may affect people with lung conditions.

The Department of Health is working closely with the Environment Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the Met Office so that we can give up-to-date information about the plume and any implications for public health. Anyone concerned about the impact of the incident on their health should contact NHS Direct. Residents in the affected areas should stay in, close their windows and watch the news. As a precaution, a number of schools in the area have been closed today and employees of companies in the cordon have been advised not to go to work today.

The movement of the plume was unpredictable, so officials have also been in contact with the European Union to keep other countries updated. Prior to the fire service's assault on the fire today, there were detailed discussions with the Environment Agency to ensure that the foam and water cannot reach the drinking water supply.

The oil industry and the Department of Trade and Industry are working to overcome any impact that the incident may have on supplies of aviation fuel to Heathrow and Gatwick. A number of local services have also been affected and some precautionary measures have been taken. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, some local people were evacuated from their homes to two rest centres provided by Dacorum district council, but only a few people took advantage of that.

The whole House will, I am sure, wish to pay tribute to the way in which the local council, voluntary agencies and the whole community responded to the emergency. I understand that a few people cannot return to their homes yet, but most are expected to do so within the next 24 hours.

Road transport was seriously disrupted yesterday as a result of the fire. The M1, M10 and local roads were all closed. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the M1 has now reopened, although entry and exit at junctions 7 and 8 will be restricted in order to allow easier access for the emergency services.

As I said at the start of my statement, the response to the Hemel Hempstead explosion is a great tribute to all the emergency and other services involved and it is also a testament to the benefit of effective emergency planning. In the world in which we now live—with increased risks of both terrorism and accidents—multi-agency, cross-government contingency planning is vital.
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Day in, day out, this type of preparation takes place behind the scenes and away from the glare of the media, yet it is for events such as yesterday's that we plan.

I can tell the House that, only three months ago, the emergency services in Hertfordshire conducted a successful exercise, covering just such an eventuality as occurred yesterday. The speed and efficiency of their response is testament to their foresight. Through the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, we put in place the legislative framework that set the foundation for that sort of multi-agency planning. The Government's investment in the New Dimension programme has also provided the equipment that worked so successfully in Carlisle and now in Hemel Hempstead.

It is through the bravery, commitment and professionalism of our emergency services that we can respond so effectively to events such as this. Last night, I witnessed a group of firefighters who were about to enter the inferno. We admire the courage and abilities of those firefighters, who work hard and willingly for the safety of the community. The House will want to record its admiration for their courage and dedication in working on behalf of the community. Not only the firefighters but the police and the ambulance workers deserve our great praise and admiration. I am sure that the House will join me in recording our thanks and gratitude for the courage and hard work of our emergency services.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving me an advance copy of his statement. My colleagues and I certainly join him in paying tribute to the emergency services' skill and courage in tackling what is possibly the largest industrial fire since world war two, and in paying tribute to all those who have mobilised around the community to help. Our thoughts and prayers are with the workers and families affected by the blast, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

In November 2001, the Health and Safety Executive prosecuted the British Pipeline Agency Ltd. for safety breaches at the Hemel Hempstead depot on account of inadequate containment around flammable aviation fuel tanks. Given that we have not heard from the Deputy Prime Minister what he thinks went wrong, could he tell the House when the HSE last inspected the oil depot? Does this latest incident prove that proper safety procedures were still not in place? Will he place in the Library of the House a copy of the compliance reports produced by the HSE in response to those earlier breaches? Is there any connection between the previous prosecution for inadequate containment around the aviation fuel tanks and eyewitnesses reporting fumes at the depot before the explosion?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that this incident raises concerns about possible lack of safety training at the depot? Can he state when—once it is safe to gain access to the site—he expects the HSE to publish its interim report? Do the HSE and the fire services ever expect to find out the true causes, given the intensity of the explosion and the heat? Does the Deputy Prime Minister's recognition of the need for a full investigation extend to a public inquiry, in order that the full implications of this incident for other depots can be considered? Does his undertaking to provide support and assistance mean that Hertfordshire's local
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authorities, including the police and the fire authority, will be eligible for emergency funding under the Bellwin scheme? Does he agree that the costs that will have to be faced—of temporary accommodation, repairs to highways and special overtime for emergency services' staff—clearly fall under eligible expenditure for Bellwin? Does he also agree that at a time of acute pressures on local authorities, including the threat of capping, it would be wrong to charge local taxpayers for this unexpected emergency, the implications of which go far beyond the locality?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has done an excellent job in articulating his constituents' concerns, and I hope that he may catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, not least because he has let the Deputy Prime Minister know of his concerns in advance. Given the worldwide reporting of this incident, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it has raised awareness—for good or ill—of the vulnerability of fuel depots? Will his Department now review security at oil depots throughout the country, and will that review include a risk assessment of any new house-building programmes near those sites? Does he agree that consideration should be given to reconstructing the Buncefield facility at a site further away from the residential community?

I compliment the Deputy Prime Minister on his prompt visit to the site, but as I know from preparing this response to his statement, this incident cuts across the work of several Departments—including his own, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and a plethora of other agencies, such as the Health Protection Agency, the Environment Agency and the Met Office. Can we assume from this statement that the Deputy Prime Minister will be in charge, and what measures are in place to ensure maximum cross-departmental co-operation?

What are the longer-term environmental and health considerations of the pollution, which is being dispersed over a wide area? Will any guidance be produced by DEFRA on the possible implications for local livestock if the smoke cloud falls down to earth as contaminated rain? What is the risk of contamination to the water supply?

The United Kingdom is close to not having enough gas supplies for the winter, largely because of lack of storage capacity. What assurances can the Deputy Prime Minister give us that this incident has not further compromised energy security? What reassurance can be given to local people that panic buying is unnecessary?

The disaster has caused only limited human casualties, because—by the grace of God—it happened at 6 o'clock on a Sunday morning, but that miracle should not engender complacency in any agency. As so many departments and agencies are involved, I urge them all to face up to the reality that this could have been so much worse.

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