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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 January 2008

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I say, Mr. O’Hara, what a pleasure it is to open the debate this morning under your chairmanship?

It is with some sadness that I stand before the House after securing Mr. Speaker’s permission to hold a debate on the Buncefield disaster that took place in my constituency on 11 December 2005. I shall start with a quotation:

The quotation is from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who visited my constituency following the Buncefield explosion. It is sad that I should stand here, more than two years after the explosion and more than two years since the last statement on the Floor of the House by the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), saying to the Government that we have some real problems in my constituency following the explosion. The problems are no fault of my constituency or my constituents, or the businesses or the local authority that has done so well to handle the situation.

On 11 December 2005, three explosions rocked my constituency. The first, from tank 912, measured 2.7 on the Richter scale. Those of us who can think back to that terrible day will have seen the television footage. The depot is not in the middle of nowhere or on the coast; it is smack, bang in the middle of the country, and right in the middle of the Maylands industrial area. The explosion and the subsequent fires in 20 tanks caused huge problems for the country, my community and the emergency services.

I wish to put on record again—I have done it many times, but it will not hurt to do so again—my admiration for chief fire officer Roy Wilsher, for the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service, and for the many county fire services that came to our rescue and helped us. I must declare an interest: I was a fireman for eight years, and I trained on refinery fires at the Coryton refinery, which supplied the fuel that caused the initial explosion. I am unashamed in my huge admiration for the firefighters of this country.

I also wish to thank the other emergency services, and in particular the chief constable and the constabularies that came to our assistance. Sadly, as is often true of such situations, many thousands of people had to leave their homes and many businesses had to be excluded from their premises. I wish also to place on record my admiration for Dacorum borough council, led by the
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excellent chief executive, Daniel Zammit, whose staff were magnificent. They put themselves into dangerous situations to protect others. There were no questions about whether a building was a local authority property, private property or anything else; everybody—the whole community—pulled together. I received literally hundreds of letters from people in private dwellings whose homes were boarded up and made safe by the chief executive’s officers. I have nothing but admiration for Dacorum borough council, which is a very small authority—I do not say that in a derisory way—that responded fantastically.

Being a local resident who was at Buncefield within half an hour of the first explosion, a former fireman and very nosy, I managed to get very close to the incident. I was lucky enough to be at the forward control point when senior firefighters were making decisions about how to put out the fire. My initial concern, like everybody’s, was the safety of my community: the residents and the people working on the site as well as—and this was very much the case—the firefighters and other emergency services.

It was apparent that serious injuries had been sustained by some of the people working at the depot in the early hours of that Sunday morning, and it has been put on record many times that it is an absolute miracle that no one died. At least one engineer who was working at the site received serious lung injuries, and all the injured were taken to the excellent accident and emergency department at Hemel Hempstead general hospital. I wonder what on earth would happen if such an incident took place in December this year, because there will be no accident and emergency department open to look after those injuries. Sadly, the Government have decided to close Hemel Hempstead general hospital. I shall not go on about that today, because I am going to request an Adjournment debate on the hospital’s future, and another Minister can take the flak for it.

The Buncefield incident, which took place in the early hours of a Sunday morning, left thousands of people with damaged homes, and thousands not knowing whether their businesses or jobs would survive. I wish to emphasise how lucky our community was. I have met many residents, including some very young people, who were lying in bed that morning, as one does on a Sunday morning, probably not even awake. Indeed, if one is thinking about waking up at 6.10 am, perhaps one should turn over and go back to sleep. They were woken initially by the explosion, but they suddenly realised that they were covered in glass; or that the front of their house had disappeared; or in some cases, that the whole house was falling down around them as they lay in bed. We are talking not about a war zone, or an area where, sadly, earthquakes or tsunamis happen, but about an urban area in eastern England, which was blown apart by an incident at an industrial complex.

Many of my constituents still suffer trauma from the explosion, and many children still receive counselling. I shall provide some quotations from children who have received counselling to try to recover. They are not grown-ups who have experienced many things in their lives. One boy of seven who needed counselling said:

He is a seven-year-old boy whose life has been tragically changed because of an industrial incident. Another child said:

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That young lady was 12. That is how young people in my constituency have been affected, and hundreds of people of all ages have received counselling.

One former constituent, who moved out of my constituency because he can never return to his home, is a gentleman called Ian Silverstein. Ian’s home was blown to smithereens. It looked like someone had dropped a 1,000 lb bomb next to his house. I have visited the site. The house is gone—it does not exist—and he worked all his life for it. I am sure that we would all struggle to realise what that feels like. There was no explosion in his home, and he had not done anything wrong. Something happened through no fault of his own.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fight over the past few years for his constituents. He has been very assiduous, and I just wish that Ministers were more responsive to his requests for information and action. Can my hon. Friend estimate the distance from the explosion to the homes that were damaged? In my constituency, there are homes near to plants that are even more dangerous than the one that exploded at Buncefield.

Mike Penning: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. May I also praise him for his quick response before Christmas when the hydrocracker at the Coryton refinery exploded? I have some knowledge of the hydrocracker because when I was a fireman in Basildon, I was on the first response unit that went to deal with it when it blew up many years ago. I know the fears that exist, and I am conscious that my hon. Friend did not go in the opposite direction; he went straight down to see the firefighters to ensure that they, too, were looked after.

To answer my hon. Friend’s question, when the first explosion took place at Buncefield, the damage occurred several kilometres away. If he has an opportunity to read the interim reports from the health and safety inquiry, he will find that because there was nothing structurally to prevent the explosion spreading outwards, or the subsequent suction inwards after the oxygen had been used up, properties as far away as St. Albans, Redbourn and the centre of Hemel Hempstead, which is several kilometres away, were subject to serious structural damage. One school in St. Albans had its central heating boiler sucked up through the flue, which blew up boilers throughout the school. Subsequently, the school did not open. That is the sort of damage that occurs in such explosions.

I was told many years ago, when I trained on such fires, that we could expect only one tank to catch fire, and probably no explosion. That remained the advice until Buncefield happened. I was told that an explosion such as Buncefield had not been modelled and no one knew that it could happen. I pointed out that it had happened in New Jersey and Florida, so we could have predicted it. However, we could not have predicted the subsequent explosions in other tanks.

I find something slightly difficult to understand. There was a tank containing unleaded petrol, and some 200 tonnes flowed from it when it was full. Someone
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who does not think that an explosion will take place if the safety devices fail does not really understand petroleum and should not be in charge of safety at such a depot. It will be for the inquiry to come to conclusions on the matter, and I shall return to that later. The fears of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), of people in my constituency and of others around the country about the safety of such depots are understandable.

So where are we today? An inquiry is being conducted—astonishingly, through the Department for Work and Pensions—by the Health and Safety Executive. It is headed by the independent chair, Lord Newton of Braintree, who is doing an excellent job considering the remit that he has been given. Sadly, its inquiry is being conducted behind closed doors, so public confidence in it is somewhat diminished. While the fire was in full flow—the fuel was still flowing, which was why there was such a large plume—I said that for the sake of public confidence in such installations and the confidence of my community, it was vital that there was an open, public inquiry. I entered into negotiations with the then Deputy Prime Minister suggesting that we hold an inquiry similar to the one that took place after the Marchioness disaster. I freely admit that that inquiry took place not under the last Conservative Administration but under the new Labour Administration. It is sad that there was not an early public inquiry in that case, as it would have saved a lot of anguish and concern for many of the relatives concerned.

Sadly, once the fire was out, the role of the Deputy Prime Minister was removed, and I was told immediately that the inquiry would be conducted by the DWP, which is responsible for the HSE. I cannot understand why that was the case. It was a massive local situation that had nothing to do with work and pensions and everything to do with the community. The then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was in charge of the fire service, and the issue was about local government and local communities. That is why I was desperate for a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister to respond to this debate, and I thank the Minister for his attendance.

Two years on, an inquiry is in progress, and it has produced interim reports. We now know, within reason, what caused the explosion. There has been extensive modelling, and it seems as if every safety device between Buncefield and Coryton in Essex failed. As I said earlier, 200 tonnes of unleaded fuel escaped through the air venting at the top of tank 912 and caused a vapour cloud. Something—the inquiry and others are not yet 100 per cent. confident about what it was—ignited the cloud, causing the first of the three explosions and the subsequent 20-tank fire.

The costs to my community, the region and the nation as a whole were large, and I shall try to break them down. I shall probably ask the Minister more questions than he can answer, and I appreciate that he may have to ask other Ministers to write to me. There was a great deal of concern about the decision to put the fire out. When there is a fire of such a size firefighters contain it, usually with a water curtain, before deciding to try to work their way in and put it out. I apologise for having too much knowledge on the subject—it comes from having a previous life outside politics.

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When the decision had been made to contain the fire and there was no longer a real worry about more tanks exploding, a decision had to be made about whether to allow the fire to burn itself out—all fires burn themselves out once the fuel goes, whether it is wood, building or, in this case, oil and petroleum—or try to put it out. I took part in broadcasts from the site, and it was obvious to me that if we tried to put it out, there would be environmental risks because of the wash-off of the firefighting water, which would take with it contamination from the site. It is plain what sort of problems would have resulted.

Knowing such refineries, it was clear to me that the bunds designed to hold the fuel would never be able to cope with holding the firefighting water and foam. I did not know at the time that the mastic that had been used on the bunds was not heat-resistant and had melted almost instantaneously, causing the water to flow out. I did not know that the engineers had drilled 7 to 8-in holes in the bund wall through which to feed pipes, but had not corked them, so it leaked straight through. I did not know that some walls were damaged so badly by the explosion that water was flowing straight out. It is for the inquiry to conclude who was responsible and whether there was any negligence.

I did know that perfluorooctanyl sulfonate—or PFOS for short—is a carcinogenic chemical used in a lot of firefighting foam. For those who do know, PFOS is a sticking agent. It is used in firefighting and fire equipment, but over the years it has also been used extensively in insecticides and pesticides on agricultural land. I shall come on to that point later. The Environment Agency asked for a delay. There was consultation in which I was not involved—I understand at gold command—and the decision was made to put out the fire. Firemen always want to put fires out; they are robust creatures and join the fire service to fight fires. If they are told not to fight a fire, they put up a robust argument against that instruction—I can say so from experience. Sometimes, however, it must be decided whether it is worth risking the life of firefighters—in my consideration no building is worth anybody’s life—and whether there is a risk to the environment.

Bob Spink: Can my hon. Friend confirm that by that stage considerable time had passed—several hours, in fact—and there was no risk to buildings because they had all been destroyed? The question was whether the fire should be left to burn out or whether the firefighters should go in and, in doing so, put the environment at considerable long-term risk. No doubt he will come to that.

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend has read my thoughts; that is exactly the point that I was coming to. There was no risk to any other building. The buildings involved had been blown to smithereens. The fire at one property close to the incident, Northgate house, was an eight-pump fire on its own, which is a major incident. As a fireman, I probably went to four eight-pump fires in eight years, and I was at a busy station in Basildon, in Essex.

There was no risk at all to others. The only risk was to those who were looting local people’s properties, and that was a risk that they took in doing something abhorrent and appalling. The decision was made, and I have not quite got to the bottom of exactly why. The
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chief fire officer Roy Wilsher tells me—and I believe him—that he made the decision to put the fire out. As I said, firemen are firemen, and they want to put fires out. There was a huge amount of help, not only in manpower from other brigades, but on a national level with the high-velocity pumps that the then Deputy Prime Minister procured. I have praised him for that before, and I praise him again. Those pumps are a wonderful national asset. They were used extensively to help tackle the flooding that sadly occurred last year—interestingly, their role was exactly the reverse of their role in my incident: pulling water rather than pumping it.

The decision was therefore made to put the fire out. There is much concern in my constituency and surrounding areas about contamination not only from petrochemical products at the site but from the foam that was used. I understand that some 70,000 litres of concentrate contained the chemical PFOS. In the run-up to Buncefield, the Government were in extensive negotiations with the European Commission regarding legislation to ban PFOS from inclusion in any product in this country. Indeed, they wanted the maximum penalty for using or bringing the product into the country to be two years’ imprisonment, so there was obviously knowledge that PFOS is very dangerous. It is carcinogenic and is classed as toxic under the chemical regime. As has been fairly widely publicised since the incident, extensive contamination from petrochemicals and PFOS has been found in the new and existing boreholes drilled by the Environment Agency.

In the spring after the Buncefield incident, I was worried when one of my farmers reported that deformed cattle were being born on his farm—Westwick farm in the Leverstock Green part of my constituency—on land adjacent to Buncefield. The farmer, Mr. Archer, has told me, in good faith, that lots of foam was blowing across the land where his rare breed stock were grazing. He brought in his stock, but does not know whether they ingested any of the foam. I am not a farmer, but whenever I go to the farm, all the cattle want is to be fed. When something different is in front of them, they tend to want to lick and taste it; apparently that is natural.

I shall not mention all of the deformities, because they are shocking, but to give hon. Members an indication, some of the calves were born with heads of almost twice the size of a normal calf and some were born with no spinal cord. Those sorts of deformity are frightening. My constituent did the right thing: he contacted his vet, who then contacted the Food Standards Agency, which said that the matter was nothing to with it, and my constituent then contacted me.

I have been in negotiations and discussions with the FSA, and subsequently with the laboratories at Pirbright, which should have been informed so that toxicology tests could take place. I have spoken to the head of the Government’s toxicology department, who has visited the farm. Tests are now being done—two years on—to find out whether the deformities are due to PFOS. I was upset and worried when the head of toxicology—I thank him for being so frank and honest—told me that the test results were unlikely to be ready before June. I asked him why, and he said that PFOS is particularly
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difficult to detect in fallen stock and liver samples and that only one laboratory in this country is capable of doing those tests.

PFOS has been used in pesticides, insecticides and other agricultural products for 30 years. I am sure that the Minister will not be able to answer this, but is that the reason why, before Buncefield, the Government were becoming more and more concerned about PFOS in the environment? Could it be that the only laboratory that is capable of testing for PFOS has a contract with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to test for PFOS in the food that comes off the land in this country?

I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to give an answer on this, but I would love to receive a letter from the relevant Minister saying whether the laboratory is testing basic foods that are coming off our fields to discover the level of PFOS contamination, if any. I believe that that is true and think that the public should know whether it is. Perhaps it is time to come clean about it if there has been contamination. I am sure that such a serious situation will concern the public. I am not trying to scare the public; I am trying to get to the truth about what has happened to the environment in my town and country.

I, and many others in my constituency, have called for a public inquiry from day one, and we came close to getting one from the previous Deputy Prime Minister, who saw the logic and sense of natural justice and having an open inquiry. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) visited Buncefield shortly after the explosion to praise the emergency workers and see for himself the devastation and effects on my community, he, too, called for a public inquiry. He also called for a single, high-ranking Minister to be made responsible for addressing the problems incurred by communities when incidents such as Buncefield occur, and empowered to do so.

Since then, there have been natural disasters around the country—I send my thoughts and commiserations to those who have lost so much in the flooding—and I am sure that hon. Members who have experienced the effects of flooding will, like me, have been moved from pillar to post by different Departments saying, “They’re in charge; I’m in charge—no you’re not in charge.” That happens with the Environment Agency, the DWP, local government, the FSA and three or four other Departments that I could name.

It is completely illogical that, when such incidents occur, which is fairly rarely, and the Government need to take action quickly in a co-ordinated way, we do not have the aid and help that we need. I do not wish to be controversial, but the Government have responded compassionately to disasters around the world, and this country has responded fantastically to the tsunami, the flooding in Bangladesh and other incidents around the world, so it is incomprehensible to me that this and previous Governments have not thought about how best to look after our own communities should such an incident occur.

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