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19 July 2006 : Column 80WH—continued

10.24 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I shall shorten my speech to allow the Minister the maximum time to respond to the extremely important questions and issues brought up by hon. Members.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this important debate. I visited the Buncefield site with him earlier this year and was shocked by the scale of the incident, the severity of the impact on surrounding properties and buildings, and the sheer size of the footprint of the damage created by the blast. Clearly the explosion at Buncefield, which exceeded any previous worst-case scenarios for emergency planning purposes, has heightened concern among Members such as myself who have major fuel storage and processing facilities in their constituencies.

I echo my hon. Friend’s call for an open and independent inquiry into the Buncefield incident. The results of the inquiry cannot be that we should carry on business as usual. It must lead to some real improvements in the way in which risks are assessed and managed at fuel storage sites.

In my constituency, we have the UK’s largest fuel storage terminal facility. It is three or four times the size of Buncefield and has capacity for more than 9 million barrels of product. It has more than 80 tanks storing a range of products including gasoline,
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kerosene, jet fuel and crude oil. In close proximity to that storage facility, we have two of the UK’s nine major oil refineries, which are also located on the Milford Haven waterway, and two of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas import and storage facilities are being built alongside them.

The major concentration of hydrocarbon storage and processing facilities in my constituency is heightening concern in my community about the risks that the local population is living alongside, particularly in the village of Waterston, where the storage facility is located. To say that the facility is close to the village is inaccurate: it is right in the middle of the village. Indeed, many villagers live just a few feet from the main entrance to the SemLogistics site. In the past year or two, they have lived with the disruption caused by the construction activities around the liquefied natural gas plant. They also live with the eyesore of the stacks and buildings from the old oil refinery, but their biggest concern at the moment centres on understanding the risks. They seek reassurance about the risks that they live alongside.

At the start of this year, the fuel storage facility was sold by Petroplus to SemGroup, a US company which trades in the UK under the name SemLogistics. I have been extremely encouraged by the several meetings that I have had with the US and the UK components of the management team, who seem to be taking seriously their responsibilities to ensure that an incident such as that at Buncefield never happens in Pembrokeshire. At our first meeting, we agreed that the site needs more than a lick of paint and a change of badge. Serious investment is needed to upgrade the facility and provide reassurance for the community nearby.

Two weeks ago, I visited the site and saw the new secondary containment features being installed in the tanks, and a new Bentomat geosynthetic clay liner being put in to prevent the leakage of product into the ground water. I looked at some of the high-level safety systems, which actually exceed current UK statutory requirements, that are being installed on the tanks. The company takes its responsibilities seriously.

I was encouraged by the initial findings of the Health and Safety Executive’s safety alert review last month, which did not identify the Waterston site as one of the five in which there are problems and issues with bunding, risk assessment or the maintenance of firefighting systems on site.

Those are reasons to be encouraged, but there are other reasons for dismay and huge concerns in my community. Our local fire brigade has a proud history, having tackled some major incidents at the oil refineries in Pembrokeshire in the past 40 years, but we are set to lose our only remaining 24-hour fire station, which will be downgraded to a day crew only. That is causing huge concern in my community. I repeat the calls that I have made many times for the Mid and West Wales fire authority to hold back from implementing that decision, at least until the full findings of the Buncefield inquiry are made public, so that we can better understand risks and how we respond to major incidents. As I said earlier, what has happened at Buncefield has reset the gauge for emergency responses to major incidents.

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We need facilities such as the ones in my constituency. I do not know enough about the matter to say whether Buncefield will ever reopen, but we need storage facilities in the UK for strategic reasons. At a time of energy price volatility, it makes good commercial sense for some of the downstream companies to have such storage facilities, but the risks need to be managed properly and understood. I hope that the Buncefield inquiry will result in some clear, concrete recommendations for improving the safety of these facilities and will provide reassurance for the communities that live immediately next to them.

10.30 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on raising this issue. It is clearly of enormous importance to his constituency and has great significance for other parts of the United Kingdom that have similar oil and fuel storage facilities. I hope that we will be able to return to the subject in other debates. I add the congratulations and thanks of my party to those given by his party to the members of the emergency services who dealt with what was clearly a major and serious incident.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond to the debate, so I shall keep my comments as brief as possible. Conservative Members have commented on a number of the environmental concerns that remain in the area around Buncefield. Those points have been made clearly, and therefore I do not need to add to them.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address three particular issues. The first is a point that has, understandably, not been made so far: when the fire and explosion initially occurred, there were fears, given the general background, that the incident might have been caused by a terrorist attack of some kind. As I am sure that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead is aware, there is a danger of fighting the previous fire and learning the lessons of an incident that may not be the one that we face in the future. As the investigation proceeds, will the Minister ensure that any lessons arising from Buncefield about the safety of these types of facility will be taken on board in relation to the security aspects of such sites? The sites are key in national security terms, and we want to ensure that their vulnerability is closely examined in respect not only of this type of incident, which fortunately was not a terrorist one, but of any terrorist incidents that might occur.

Secondly, we know that, in this set of circumstances, the key issues were why the fuel was allowed to run into and over the top of the tank, why the safety checks failed and why the safety equipment appeared not to be working. We know that the Health and Safety Executive issued a safety alert in early July to operators of fuel storage facilities. That related specifically to one of the safety devices that are supposed to be attached to all of the tanks to prevent such incidents from occurring. We know, because it is set out in paragraph 23 of the report, that there was further investigation into the design and operation of this particular high-level switch, and the way in which the switches are put back in a position that ensures that they are operating after testing.

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Paragraph 23 states:

I would be grateful if the Minister said a little about why the issue has arisen in relation to Buncefield. Is there any evidence that the switches of this type at Buncefield were not operating? Are these particular switches tested regularly by the HSE as part of its regular inspections of these sites? Will that be done in future? It would also be useful if he would say whether the testing of these devices has taken place at other facilities throughout the United Kingdom.

My third and final point is that it is clear from the ministerial statement that was made the other day and from other things that the size of both the fire and the incident was not expected. We still do not know why the explosion was as large as it was. It is also clear from paragraph 83 of the report that the HSE’s advice about the type of incident that could occur in a worse-case scenario turned out not to be accurate. It states:

That is clearly an extremely important point for other sites in the country.

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Other such incidents have taken place in parts of the world, so it is important to find out why the HSE did not use the experience of the incidents that took place in New Jersey and Florida, where similar, but not identical, situations involving a vapour cloud caused by petroleum occurred. Perhaps that experience could have been used to prevent the Buncefield incident from ever occurring.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes his point very effectively. I do not claim to have expertise in those other incidents, but this is clearly a serious matter. The recommendations in paragraph 71 represent some of the major issues that we will need to examine if we conclude that there are risks of further explosions on this scale. I again congratulate him. The issues are clearly important for his constituency and county, but there are also important issues for all of these facilities in the UK.

10.36 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on bringing a unique blend of professional expertise and determination to represent his constituents on this serious matter. I also congratulate all others who have made a contribution and, in hopeful anticipation, I congratulate the Minister on his response.

To this particular situation, I bring an interest that goes all the way back to my school days and my time in the combined cadet force, when I was involved in civil defence matters. Since that time, I have gained a limited amount of experience in fire training and in resilience issues. In conducting my own farm business, I acquired
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quite a knowledge of pesticides and diffuse pollution. Incidentally, I also held a petroleum storage licence for a number of years. My final point on credentials is that my daughter used to conduct prosecutions on behalf of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

I shall begin with the positive side of this matter so far. I am happy to endorse the praise that has been properly lavished on the emergency services for the tremendous job that they did on the occasion. Secondly, I extend my thanks to Lord Newton, who, as it happens, became my first boss 40 years ago this week.

Mike Penning: On my hon. Friend’s first point, the fire services of this country do a fantastic job, but sadly firemen get injured and some die. Two brave firefighters recently died in incidents in Hertfordshire. The fire brigade’s benevolent fund raises a lot of money for former colleagues. I hope that you, Mr. Conway, do not mind my highlighting the fact that the booklet, “The Buncefield Explosion”, which will raise money for the firefighters’ benevolent fund in Hertfordshire, is probably the best visual guide to any incident that this country has ever seen. Will my hon. Friend praise the work of the fire brigade benevolent fund as well?

Mr. Boswell: I have no hesitation in doing so. We are grateful and lucky in respect of the dedication of our emergency services.

I mentioned Lord Newton and the expert work that his committee has conducted. I should also like to touch on aspects of the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive, in particular the Health and Safety Laboratory, which I visited recently. I am happy to say that in terms of the knowledge of its people, even if it is not always translated into the results we would want, it is a world leader in forensic accident investigation.

So much for the positive. It is important that the Minister should respond and that we should put our remarks in a reasonable context. I should like to highlight three points of query or criticism before I sit down. The first is that, on the facts as set out in the interim report, it seems that somehow a long period—nearly 40 years—of the successful operation of this depot and of similar depots, be they in Milford Haven or elsewhere, has lulled local residents and the operators into a false sense of security. The series of explosions and the fire came as a serious shock. I mention that not simply to show the importance of regular and professional inspection by the HSE and so forth, but to allow us to consider the possibility of challenge inspections by outside bodies, which could look into an incident and ask the awkward questions that are occasionally overlooked.

I hope that the Minister will say a little about the Government response, which has already been explored in exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, and about ministerial responsibility. Ministers need to show who is responsible at any one time; I bear in mind that different Departments have interlocking responsibilities, but who is in charge—and at ministerial, not simply agency, level? Ministers owe us the assurance that they are satisfied that action is being taken at all similar oil storage facilities, and at establishments that face similar risks, in the United Kingdom.

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I should like to emphasise the issue of progressive development around the site and the planning issues, which have already been touched on. They need looking into, particularly as there is evidence that the HSE entered no objection to the development adjacent to the site. The Minister might usefully say something about the interlocking interests of the HSE and another Government agency, the Environment Agency, which is responsible to another Minister. He might want to say something about monitoring such development and preparing the safety plan, and about that plan as a whole.

Finally, I re-emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made so passionately about the inquiry process. There is an inherent difficulty in government that goes back to the days of the Roman Tacitus—the problem of who will supervise the guardians. Who is to be responsible for ensuring that the professional activities of Government regulators are carried out to the highest possible standards? We should remember that in some cases, including that of Buncefield, the HSE is the competent prosecuting authority. If a criminal prosecution is brought—and I do not wish to prejudice that process—there is a real risk that the HSE will be not merely judge and jury, but prosecutor. That is a difficult moral hazard, and it is not confined to HSE matters; exactly the same could apply to the Food Standards Agency and its subsidiary, the Meat Hygiene Service. The Minister owes us a response on that point, and an explanation of why the process cannot be an entirely independent process.

In dealing with such serious incidents, it is important that the Minister accepts that there must be a readiness to be open, and he must not in any way regard a judicial process or an inquiry as an embarrassment; they are necessary reassurances to constituents and the nation that such incidents will be tackled for the future. We need to know that lessons have been learned, that the Government structure is being adjusted to deal with the situation, and that there will be continuing effective enforcement. The miracle of Buncefield is that no one was killed, so only if lessons have been learned can we feel that there has been benefit from that serious near miss.

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): This has been a thorough and wide-ranging debate—rightly so, in view of the seriousness of the incident. In the time left to me, I am afraid that it will not be possible to touch on all the points raised, so I offer my apologies in advance for that.

Mike Penning: Will the Minister give way on that very point? Mr. Plaskitt: Well, if I take interventions, I shall have even less time, but I give way.

Mike Penning: As I said to the Minister in a private meeting yesterday, I think that all of us would fully understand if all the points raised could not be dealt
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with today, but does he undertake—on his own behalf and on behalf of his Department and the other Departments involved—to write to the hon. Members who raised the points as a matter of urgency, so that we can clarify matters with our constituents?

Mr. Plaskitt: As is normal procedure when key points have been raised and it has not been possible for me to cover them, I will ensure that hon. Members get responses from the relevant Ministers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this debate on a subject that is important not just to the people of Hemel Hempstead, who are understandably closely concerned in the matter, but to all communities containing fuel storage depots of the kind found at Buncefield; that point has been made by other hon. Members. The explosions and fires that occurred at Buncefield have raised wide concerns about the safety of such sites, and all those concerns must, of course, be addressed.

The debate is timely, as it comes soon after the publication of the initial report of the investigation into the Buncefield incident, and after yesterday’s visit to the site by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who met local residents and businesses.

Mike Penning: And me.

Mr. Plaskitt: Yes, and the local Member of Parliament.

First, I should like to say a few words about the incident and its impact. The explosions and fires that burned for more than three days were massive and devastating, and caused major damage to residential and commercial properties near the depot. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or really serious injuries, but that was largely down to a good dose of luck in the timing of the incident, as the hon. Gentleman said. There was also contamination of groundwater and surface water from escaped fuel and firefighting water. That was sufficient for the incident to be reported to the European Commission as a major accident to the environment. I am aware of local concerns that the contamination may have affected drinking water supplies, particularly because of the presence of perfluorooctane sulfonate, which I shall refer to as PFOS, in the firefighting foam. That has been, and will continue to be, closely monitored. Let me reassure the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), who raised the issue, that to date no evidence has been found of contamination of drinking water.

The emergency services’ response to the incident—and particularly the response of the fire and police services—was on a massive scale. I pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of all those who responded in such difficult circumstances. The incident was a major test of the new national resilience arrangements introduced under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the test was, I think, passed.

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