2005 Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire


2005 Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire

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The 2005 Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire was caused by a series of explosions early on the morning of 11 December 2005. The terminal, generally known as the Buncefield Depot, is an oil storage facility located near the M1 motorway on the edge of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, England. News reports described the incident as the biggest of its kind in peacetime Europe,cite news |publisher = BBC News |accessdate = 2007-06-05 |url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4752819.stm |title = Buncefield tank 'was overflowing' ] The tank fires were extinguished by the afternoon of 13 December 2005. However, one storage tank re-ignited in the evening, and the firefighters left it to burn, rather than attempting to re-extinguish it.

The incident

Explosion and fire

The first and largest explosion occurred at 06:01 UTC near container 912. From all accounts, it seems to have been an unconfined vapour cloud explosion of unusually high strength. Because of an inversion layer, the explosions were heard a hundred miles (160 km) away; there were reports it was audible in France and the Netherlands.cite news |publisher = BBC News |accessdate = 2005-12-13 |url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4521232.stm |title = Can sound really travel 200 miles? ] The British Geological Survey monitored the event, which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale.cite web |author = British Geological Survey |accessdate = 2005-12-11 |url = http://www.earthquakes.bgs.ac.uk/recent_events/20051211060131.2.html |title = EXPL-HEMEL HEMPSTEAD ] It was reported that people were woken in south London, and as far west as Wokingham, where in its southern suburb, Finchampstead, numerous people felt the shockwave after the initial explosion. Subsequent explosions occurred at 06:27 and 06:28. Witnesses observed flames hundreds of feet high from many miles away, with the smoke cloud visible from space, and as far north as Lincolnshire.

Damage from the blasts, ranging from broken windows (including Holy Trinity, the local church and Leverstock Green School losing over 90 panes) and blown-in or warped front doors to an entire wall being removed from a warehouse, occurred more than half a mile (800 m) away. Buildings in neighbouring St Albans also suffered: for example, Townsend School had serious blast damage, and a window was blown out of St Albans Abbey (both c. 5 miles (8 km) from the site). Several nearby office blocks were hit so badly that almost every window, front and back, was blown in as the explosion ripped through them. Had this happened during the working day, these offices would have been full of people; possibly causing many deaths. Reports also indicated that cars in nearby streets caught fire. The roof of at least one house was blown off. Buildings in the vicinity were evacuated by police, not only because of the smoke and possibility of more explosions but because of the danger of structural damage making the buildings unstable.

There were 43 reported injuries; two people were deemed to be seriously injured enough to be kept in hospital, one in Watford General Hospital, with breathing difficulties, and another in Hemel Hempstead Hospital; they were not in a life-threatening condition. Some early media reports spoke of eight fatalities, but these may have been persons missing. All members of staff from the terminal were accounted for.

Hertfordshire police and fire services and the Member of Parliament for the area, Mike Penning, said that there were seven fuel tanks on the site which, as of 14:00 on 12 December, had not been affected; these tanks were at risk of exploding if the fire were to spread.

Tackling the blaze

Around 150 firefighters were called to the incident--they began to tackle the blaze at 08:20 on the morning of 12 December, putting in containment measures before applying a large quantity of foam. It was estimated that this would be the largest 'single-seat' fire in the world ever to be fought by a fire brigade, and foam supplies from sites all over the UK were drawn upon. Plans had been in place to start using foam at midnight on 11 December, but were delayed by last-minute concerns over possible pollution of local rivers and underlying water sources from contaminated water used to fight the fires. Six high volume pumps were used to extract 25,000 litres of water per minute (91 gallons per second) from a reservoir 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the fire, with six more high volume pumps deployed at various locations to serve as boosters.cite web |author = FRSonline |accessdate = 2006-06-30 |url = http://www.frsonline.fire.gov.uk/resilience/article/51/443 |title = High Volume Pumps at Buncefield ] 32,000 litres per minute (117 gallons per second) of aerated foam were directed against the fire for just over four hours, after which the pumping rate was reduced. Half the 20 individual fires were reported extinguished by midday. By 16:30 it was reported that a further two tank fires had been extinguished, but that one of the earlier extinguished tanks had ruptured and re-ignited, and was now threatening to cause the explosion of an adjacent tank. This led to the M1 motorway being closed again, the public exclusion area being widened and firefighters being temporarily withdrawn until the risk from the threatened tank could be determined.

Firefighting operations were resumed at about 20:00 and it was anticipated that all fires could be extinguished during the night. Further damage occurred to one of the storage tanks in the early hours of the morning, causing firefighters to be withdrawn once more, but operations resumed at 08:30. By midday on the 13 December, all but three fires had been extinguished, although the largest tank was still burning. Bronze command (that is operations on the ground) was visited by the Bishop of St Albans, the local Vicar and the industrial chaplain supporting the fire crews to see how they were coping. The smoke plume had been considerably reduced and was more grey, indicating the amount of vapourised water now combining with the smoke. Firefighters were confident that the remaining fires could be extinguished during the day. It was reported at 16:45 that all tank fires were now extinguished, although some smaller fires remained. 75% of firefighters for Hertfordshire were involved in fighting the fire, together with support from 16 other brigades. The entire gold command operation involving many agencies as well as all the emergency services was run from Hertfordshire Constabulary's headquarters in Welwyn Garden City some distance from the fire.

A further fire broke out during the early morning of 14 December. Firefighters were of the view that extinguishing it would leave the risk of petroleum vapour re-igniting or exploding, so it would be better to allow the fire, which was well contained, to burn itself out.Fact|date=February 2007

Hertfordshire Fire Service's deputy chief Mark Yates stated that escaping petroleum vapour was the most likely cause of the original explosion and fire.

moke cloud

The black smoke cloud, which was clearly visible from satellite photographs, drifted at high altitude, around convert|9000|ft|m, towards Reading and Swindon, and could be seen across much of South East England. The small particles in the smoke, which contained hydrocarbons, can be an irritant but had low toxicity and were not expected to cause any long-term harm. The Met Office issued warnings that the smoke in the atmosphere could come down in rainfall during the night of 11 December.cite news |publisher = BBC News |accessdate = 2005-12-11 |url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4518500.stm |title = Smoke cloud spreading over South ]

For the first two days of the fire, the high thermal energy made the plume highly buoyant; this, together with settled weather conditions, allowed the plume to rise to a great height with little cross-mixing. When the fire was reduced in intensity it was reported to be possible that the plume would be less buoyant and that ground-level smoke concentrations could then rise significantly.

By 12 December, it was reported that the smoke cloud had reached northern France; it was expected to arrive in northern Spain by the weekend.cite news |publisher = Anadolu News Agency |accessdate = 2005-12-12 |url = http://www.zaman.com/?bl=hotnews&alt=&trh=20051212&hn=27449 |title = Smoke of British Oil Depot Fire Reaches France ]

To investigate the smoke cloud the "Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements", a research aircraft operated jointly by NERC and the Met Office, made two flights on the 12th and 13 December. In the first flight the edge of the plume was followed along the south coast of England. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone concentrations were found to be low with soot particles being the major component in the cloud. The second flight went into the centre of the plume to obtain data to help forecasting and emergency teams.cite web |author = Natural Environment Research Council |accessdate = 2005-12-12 |url = http://www.nerc.ac.uk/publications/latestpressrelease/2005-58oil.asp |title = Oil depot explosion ] cite web |author = Natural Environment Research Council |accessdate = 2005-12-14 |url = http://www.nerc.ac.uk/publications/latestpressrelease/2005_58oil.asp |title = Oil depot explosion - update ]

Reactions and response

Evacuations and closures

Hundreds of homes in the Hemel Hempstead area were evacuated, with about 2000 people having to find alternative accommodation, and emergency services asked residents of the smoke-affected areas to close their windows and doors and stay inside. Hertfordshire Constabulary advised people who had houses with smashed windows to seek refuge with friends or family nearby if possible. Some people whose homes were damaged by the blast were placed in hotels, while others stayed in a nearby shopping centre. Total, the operator of the Buncefield depot, set up a helpline for people whose properties had been damaged by the explosion, and called in local authorities and the Salvation Army to provide accommodation or other help.

About 227 schools across Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire as well as libraries and other public buildings were closed on December 12 and December 13 for public safety.cite web |author = Hertfordshire County Council |accessdate = 2005-12-13 |url = http://www.hertsdirect.org.uk |title = Buncefield Depot Explosion – services affected ] Police and local authorities advised residents to consult the "Hertfordshire Direct" website for up-to-date information. The University of Hertfordshire campus located further afield in Hatfield remained open. Meanwhile, 78 schools in Luton borough were closed on 13 December and a limited number of schools in Bedfordshire. These were closed on the advice of Hertfordshire's Health Protection Agency that all schools should be closed in a convert|10|mi|km|sing=on radius of the incident site due to concerns of the smoke plume and children's health. They reopened as normal on 14 December. [cite web | url=http://www.luton.gov.uk/internet/references/news/news%20archive/2005%20news%20releases/december%202005/Schools%20in%20Luton%20to%20clos | title=Luton schools re-open | publisher=Luton Borough Council | date=2005-12-13 | accessdate=2007-05-16]

Transport disruption

The incident occurred close to junction 8 of the M1 motorway. The motorway was shut between junctions 12 and 6a (about eighteen miles (29 km)) shortly after the incident. Other roads in the vicinity, including the short M10 motorway, were also closed.

Some local petrol stations reported long queues as people started panic buying. A spokesman for the Department for Trade and Industry gave assurances that no petrol shortage was likely to result from the incident.Fact|date=February 2007

The oil terminal supplied 30% of Heathrow Airport's fuel, and because of the fire, the airport had to start rationing fuel. Some long-haul flights to the Far-East and Australia had to "pit-stop" at Stansted Airport or other European airports to refuel, while short-haul operators were asked to fuel their planes for the round trip before flying to Heathrow.cite news |publisher = BBC News |accessdate = 2005-12-16 |url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/4534014.stm |title = Oil fire leads to plane pitstops ] Fuel shortages continued for months after the explosion.

Business disruption

A number of companies was affected by an inability to reach premises used for distribution even where the premises themselves were largely unaffected by the blast.

The worst hit of the buildings were the Northgate Information Solutions headquarters and the Fujifilm building, both of which were totally devastated. As of December 13 their buildings were completely unusable. The Fujifilm building was rendered unsafe, and demolition began soon afterwards. By June 2006 it had been completely removed from the site.

The Northgate and Fujifilm buildings were closest to the blast, although the surrounding Catherine House (to the north), Keystone Distribution building (to the west), 3Com Corporation and RO buildings (to the south), were also extensively damaged. As a result of the destruction of the equipment in the Northgate building several websites it hosts were inaccessible—including that of the Labour Party. Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge was also affected with the IT system dealing with admissions and discharges needing to be replaced for several days by a manual system.cite news |publisher = BBC News |accessdate = 2005-12-12 |url = http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/4521608.stm |title = Oil blaze hits hospital systems ]

Local criticism

Criticism was expressed by local citizens and the local MP that originally the depot had been constructed away from other buildings, but that developmental pressures had led to both houses and commercial premises being built near the depot.

Legal action

A total of 2,700 claims have been filed by residents, businesses and insurers. A group of 146 claimants are hoping to bring a class action against Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd. On 17 March 2006 a High Court official, Senior Master Turner, adjourned a hearing on whether to permit the class action until October 2006. [cite news | url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/beds/bucks/herts/4816058.stm | title=Buncefield victims in court move | publisher=BBC News | date=2006-03-17 | accessdate=2007-05-16]

Groundwater pollution

In May 2006 Three Valleys Water announced that it had detected the fire retardant perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), used in fire fighting foam, in a ground water bore hole close to the Buncefield site. It stated that no water from this well entered the public water supply and that a nearby well and pumping station had been closed since the fire as a precaution. The chemical is a known health risk and the UK government had been about to ban its use. However just before the announcement, the Drinking Water Inspectorate announced that it was increasing the safe level of the chemical in drinking water. Hemel Hempstead MP, Mike Penning accused the government of changing the rules to suit the situation in which PFOS levels in drinking water in the area may rise in the future. [cite web | url=http://www.hemelhempsteadtoday.co.uk/mk4custompages/CustomPage.aspx?pageID=58601 | title=Report on the Buncefield Investigation reports of May 06 | publisher=Hemelhempstead Today | date=2007-05 | accessdate=2007-05-16]

Inquiry

A government inquiry held jointly by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency was started, but calls for a full public enquiry were declined. [cite news | url=http://www.prnewswire.co.uk/cgi/news/release?id=161759 | title=Buncefield Victims Criticise Cover Up | publisher=PR Newswire | date=2006-01-12 | accessdate=2007-05-16] The Board included Lord Newton of Braintree, Prof Dougal Drysdale, an authority on fire safety and Dr Peter Baxter, a medical expert. Environment Agency and HSE staff were also on the board. Its aim was to identify the immediate causes of the explosion, rather than consider who was to blame for any deficiencies, so as not to prejudice further legal proceedings. An initial progress report by the Major Incident Investigation Board on 21 February 2006 did not go into the causes of the explosion, but summed up the event and the immediate reaction from the emergency services. [cite news | url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/beds/bucks/herts/4734838.stm | title=Delayed Buncefield findings due | publisher=BBC News | date=2006-02-21 | accessdate=2007-05-16] [cite news | url=http://www.edie.net/news/news_story.asp?id=11110&channel=0 | title=Questions still unanswered in Buncefield probe | publisher=Edie News Center | date=2006-02-22 | accessdate=2007-05-16] A second progress report, published 11 April 2006, looked at the environmental impact.

A further announcement was made on 9 May 2006 about the sequence of events which caused the explosion. Starting at 19:00 on the evening of 10 December Tank 912, towards the north west of the main depot, was filled with unleaded petrol. At midnight the terminal closed, and a check was made of the contents of tanks which found everything normal. From about 03:00 the level gauge for Tank 912 began indicating an unchanging level reading, despite filling continuing at 550 cubic metres per hour (19,500 cu ft per hour). Calculations show that the tank would have begun to overflow at about 05:20. 40 minutes later, an estimated 300 tonnes of petrol would have spilled down the side of the tank onto the ground inside "bund wall A" - a semi-enclosed compound surrounding several tanks. There is evidence suggesting that a high level switch, which should have detected that the tank was full and shut off the supply, failed to operate. CCTV footage shows a cloud of vapour 1 to 2 metres (3 to 7 feet) deep flowing away from the tank. By 06:01, when the first explosion occurred, the cloud had spread beyond the boundaries of the site.Fact|date=February 2007

The extent of the damage meant it was not possible to determine the exact source of ignition, but possibilities include an emergency generator and the depot's fire pump system. The investigators did not believe that it was caused either by the driver of a fuel tanker, as had been speculated, or by anyone using a mobile phone. It was felt unlikely that the explosion had a widespread effect on air quality at ground level.

Responsibility and legal claims

On 23 May 2008 a High Court judge ruled that Total UK was negligent over the cause of the explosion. Mr Justice David Steel issued a summary judgment after hearing that both Total and Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HOSL) had agreed that negligence was the cause. Total UK claimed that the duty supervisor at the time was responsible for the explosion, but refused to admit either civil or criminal liability for the incident. Claimants, include insurance companies, small businesses and about 280 families whose properties were damaged or destroyed, are claiming up to £1 billion in damages. Total UK intends to argue that it should not be liable for damages because it could not reasonably have foreseen that it would cause the destruction it did. [cite news|url=http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article3993400.ece|title=Total negligent over blast at Buncefield|author=Alex Spence and Michael Herman|work=The Times|date=2008-05-23|accessdate=2008-08-12]

The terminal

The Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal (HOSL - Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd), generally known as the Buncefield complex, was the fifth largest oil-products storage depot in the UK, with a capacity of about 60 million Imperial gallons (273 million litres) of fuel, although it was not always filled. This was about 5% of UK oil storage capacity. It was a major hub on the UK's oil pipeline network (UKOP) with pipelines to Humberside and Merseyside and is an important fuel source to the British aviation industry, providing aircraft fuel for local airports including London Gatwick, London Heathrow and Luton airports. About half of the complex is dedicated to the storage of aviation fuel. The remainder of the complex stores petrol and diesel fuel for petrol stations across much of the South-East of England. The terminal is owned by TOTAL UK Limited (60%) and Texaco 40%.

The seat of the fire, and the worst damaged section, was "HOSL West", used by Total and Texaco to store a variety of fuels, and the neighbouring British Pipeline Agency area.

Initial speculation on causes

The police issued a statement saying that they were treating the incident as an accident as opposed to a terrorist attack. Rumours of a deliberate attack, in the form of an aeroplane deliberately crashed into the site, spread in the initial aftermath of the explosion because of the distinctive noise the event made. They may have been given some credence because of the proximity of Luton airport to the site of the incident, and the fact that numerous flight paths crisscross the area.

Italian television stations early on the morning of the fire described the event as a possible terrorist attack and went to the extent of showing features on the July 2005 terrorist bombings. Speculation about the possible terrorist nature of the blasts was prompted by the fact that a videotape allegedly released by al-Qaeda four days previously had called for attacks on fuel depots and refineries containing oil "stolen" from Muslim countries.cite news |publisher = Forbes |accessdate = 2005-12-11 |url = http://www.forbes.com/business/energy/feeds/ap/2005/12/11/ap2383564.html |title = UK Police Say Fuel Blasts an Accident ] However, the cause of the blasts will likely not be known until a full investigation is completed. [ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2005/dec/14/buncefieldfueldepotfire2005.guardianletters Letters: A black cloud over Buncefield | UK news | The Guardian ] ]

An oil industry specialist speculated on BBC News that a vapour leak could have built up to explosive concentrations because of the ground frost in the area keeping vapour concentration at ground level. This would have resulted in a fuel-air explosion. It is industry practice for detection systems to be in place to reveal leakages. In order for this scenario to be fulfilled, there must have been a leakage that was not picked up by the leak detection system.Fact|date=February 2007

A BBC News 24 interview with a petrol tanker driver, who was about to load his tanker at 06:00, reported a cloud of mist rolling in from the tank farm area behind the loading bay. All electric lights were turned off and they were ordered to leave the site on foot. As he was doing so, the blast blew him off his feet. In another interview, a security guard in a nearby office building reported an unusual smell of petrol inside his building before the explosion. Hertfordshire police reported speaking to a tanker driver concerned that switching the engine cut-off on his tanker might have triggered the explosion.

Other safety experts spoke of a known "weekend effect" in industry, in which weekend maintenance creates an unsafe condition.

A retired military explosives safety officer submitted a published paper on the explosion to the HSE inquiry.cite web |author = Robert Willcox |accessdate = 2006-06-20 |url = http://www.explosafety.homecall.co.uk/Vapour%20Explosions.pdf |title = Vapour Explosions ] The paper was intended to help those who lived close to petrol storage depots and who were worried about the risks they faced. It contained different views from those of other experts whose opinions had been voiced publicly. It was critical of the HSE's general safety culture.

One year on

An anniversary service was held in Holy Trinity Church Leverstock Green on Sunday the 10th of December at which the Bishop of St Albans spoke, calling again for a full public inquiry, for assurances that the local hospital would maintain its accident and emergency department, and for the community to continue to build on good relationships formed because of the blast. [cite web | url=http://www.stalbans.anglican.org/news/2006/buncefield06.htm | title= Hemel remembers Buncefield one year on | publisher=St Albans Diocese | accessdate=2007-05-16]

References

Further reading

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External links

* [http://www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk/index.htm The Buncefield Investigation] Official government enquiry.
* [http://www.herts.police.uk/about/buncefield_incident.htm Hertfordshire Constabulary] Aerial photographs of the fire in progress.
* [http://www.total.gb.com/media/mediatool.cfm?page=home Buncefield Terminal Incident] Pages on the Total UK website.
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* [http://www.hemelhempsteadtoday.co.uk/newsfront.aspx?sectionid=841&moreover=news Hemel Today News]
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*cite news|url=http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/1213/buncefield.html|publisher=RTÉ News|title=Buncefield oil depot fires extinguished|date=13 December 2005
* [http://www.earthquakes.bgs.ac.uk/recent_events/world_special/alert_info.htm British Geological Survey seismic alert for this event]
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* [http://homepage.ntlworld.com/alan-turnbull/secret2.htm#buncefield New high resolution aerial photo (January 2006) of aftermath at Buncefield depot]
* [http://www.multimap.com/map/photo.cgi?client=public&x=508725&y=208414&scale=10000 Aerial photo] of the Buncefield terminal. Other gbmaprim|TL087084|map and aerial photo sources.
* [http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/showthreaded.php?Cat=0&Board=currentEvents&Number=229722&fpart=&PHPSESSID= Google Earth Placemark]
* [http://www.merrymedia.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=814&Itemid=62 Media Coverage of Fire]
* [http://www.hemelhempsteadtoday.co.uk/mk4custompages/CustomPage.aspx?PageID=55070 Local newspaper's reader photos]
* [http://www.jonrb.com/photo/Fujifilm/index.html Photographs of Fujifilm's offices by a freelancer working there at the time]


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