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Inspection report on spill pipeline ‘overdue by three years’

THE PRESS AND JOURNAL: PAGE 6. MONDAY, February 20, 2012

BY ROSS DAVIDSON

An inspection report on the safety of a pipeline at the centre of the UK’s biggest oil leak in a decade was overdue by three years, officials revealed.

Operator Shell was supposed to assess the integrity of pipelines at Gannet Alpha every four years, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said the audit had not been carried out since 2004.

HSE has issued SheIl with two improvement notices after the firm did not keep the report up-to-date.

More than 200 tonnes of light crude spewed into the North Sea in August last year from a leak in a pipeline serving the Gannet Alpha, 112 miles east of Aberdeen.

Shell was accused of playing down the incident after it estimated 120 barrels had been spilled – but later revised it to l,300 barrels.

The operator is still awaiting the outcome of an investigation into the spill and could face prosecution over the incident

Earlier this month, the oil giant had to deal with further problems at the platform after it was evacuated when gas started seeping out underwater.

About 50 people were taken off the platform, leaving 28 essential staff on-board.

Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, described Shell’s approach to health and safety as “shocking”.

He said: “Despite being responsible for Britain’s worst oil spill in a decade, Shell is once again giving people reason to worry about the safety of its operations.

“It prompts one to ask just how many other oil companies are not on the ball when it comes to health and safety?

“Shell’s failure to keep safety plans up-to-date is really quite shocking for a company with such a global profile,”

A spokesman for Shell UK said the improvement notices did not mean the external investigation, being conducted by HSE and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, had concluded.

He said: “Shell is confident that it can promptly meet the requirements laid down in these improvement notices.

“Shell continues to work closely with the regulatory authorities in their ongoing investigation into the Gannet incident.

“We aim to learn from past mistakes and make whatever changes are necessary to ensure they are not repeated.”

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“The drip, drip, drip of negative information has been every bit as corrosive to the company’s reputation as the oil leaking from its pipe. It was not until a week after the oil was first spotted that the company apologised.”

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It was a routine flight from Aberdeen, but as the Bristow helicopter ferried oil workers across the North Sea, one passenger noticed something unusual. On the surface of the water, just a few miles from the Gannet Alpha platform, was a large oily sheen.

Ministers were not unduly concerned – Shell was confident that it was just another one of the hundreds of minor spills that are reported in the North Sea every year. It gave assurances that the situation was under control. Within days, however, it became apparent that the spill was far more serious than Shell wanted to publicly admit.

Privately, department officials were forced to concede that the leak was “substantial”, as Shell sought to minimise negative coverage by strangling the flow of information to the national media and environmental bodies.

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