In the early hours of Sunday 11th December 2005a number of explosions occurred at Buncefield oil storage depot in Hemel HempsteadHertfordshireEngland. At least one of the initial explosions was of massive proportions and there was a large fire which engulfed a high proportion of the site. More than 40 people were injured.
Significant damage occurred to both commercial and residential properties in the vicinity and a large area around the site was evacuated on emergency service advice.
The fire burned for several daysdestroying most of the site and emitting large clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere.
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently leading a joint investigation with the Environment Agency (EA) under the supervision of a Major Accident Investigation Board (MAIB).
The MAIB has received an initial report from investigation manager Taff Powell and has just made its comments known: “The report makes clear that the extensive damage to the site and the need to make it safe has unavoidably delayed the investigating team in gaining access and carrying out a thorough forensic examination of the scene with a view to gathering evidence.
“The Board commends the investigation team for their thoroughness and professionalism in difficult physical circumstances.”
Powell continues: “A good start has been made which is already producing valuable information. There ishowevermuch more to be done before the root causes of the incident can be identified.”
Howeverthe MAIB points out that although it hoped to be in a position to tell both the HSE and EA that they had established the main facts behind the incidentthis is not yet the case.
Even sothe HSE has published precautionary advice to operators of sites similar to Buncefield and will follow up this advice through site visits.
The emergency services are carrying out their own internal investigations to identify lessons learned.
The Major Accident Investigation Board report goes on to note that the greatest
anxiety will be felt by those whose homes or businesses were affected by the Buncefield incidentand those who live or work near similar sites.
“A key task is to establish exactly how the flammable mixture that gave rise to the explosion was able to form. The Board has asked the investigation team to give the resolution of this question maximum priority” it says.
Another crucial issue highlighted is the way that the HSE formulates its advice to planners considering off-site developments.
The Board recognises thatto provide sensible and balanced advice for the future in the wake of such a rare eventHSE needs to understand how and why the explosion occurred.
But it has emphasised to the HSE the importance that it attaches to the review of this advice as further information from the investigation emerges.
The MAIB report was welcomed by the UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA)which represents over 150 companies operating from over 200 sites in the country.
Steve Elliottdirector generalsaid: “I am pleased to see the early publication of this progress report. It enables us to consider what practical actions we can take with our members to ensure risks to their employeesthe public and the environment are being actively managed.
“In line with our Responsible Care guiding principleswe wholeheartedly embrace this opportunity to work with the regulatorsso that something positive comes from this incidentto improve everyone’s safety.”
More about the Major Accidents Investigation Board investigation can be found at www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk"