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Eastern Daily Press: Bacton explosion probe begins

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Smoke rises above the Bacton gas terminal. Picture: EDP reader Anna Hollis. 

29 February 2008 05:45

Neighbours of Norfolk’s giant gas terminal are today pondering how close they came to disaster after a blast rocked the seaside complex.

Villagers in Bacton are used to living in the shadow of the site’s mass of pipes, pumps, aerials and chimneys, which handle a third of the nation’s gas.

But many were shocked when their homes were rocked by the 5.45pm blast from a waste water system in the middle of the Shell section at the eastern end of the site, which sent a huge column of smoke towering over the terminal.

Officials last night could not say what had caused the explosion, but assured an investigation would be held.

Shell plant manager at Bacton, Don Paulino, refused to say how close the explosion had been to causing a major incident.

And he declined to comment on whether the explosion happened near any flammable materials, saying it was in “a watery area”.

But he stressed that the emergency plan in place had worked very well, that there was no threat to the local community and that gas supplies were not affected.
 
Even though the National Grid gave assurances that the shutdown of the Bacton Shell site would not affect national supplies – because enough was coming in from other sources – there was last night a

surge in UK gas prices caused by news of the blast.

Among the nearest people to the explosion and fire were Richard and Anna Hollis, who own the Castaways Holiday Park next door to the site.

Mr Hollis said: “I heard the blast. It sounded like a bomb going off. The fire probably lasted for about 20 to 25 minutes.”

And he was not confident of finding out the full truth about the incident, adding: “They won’t tell us every-thing about what happened, based on my previous experience of the gas companies.”

His wife added: “We could see flames and smoke shooting up into the air and the siren was going off very loudly.

“It was really alarming. We could see billowing black smoke. The fire was right in the centre of the terminal and there were helicopters flying all around.”

After the blaze had been put out, she added: “It could have been 10 times worse. But we are just so glad that it wasn’t serious and that everyone was safe.

“It always worries me. It is really alarming when something like this happens to know that you are only 119m away from the terminal.”

Questions were going to be asked about the safety of the site, which was due to hold another of its regular emergency exercises next Wednesday, she added.

After the 5.45pm blast, a stream of fire engines headed to the site from all over the north of the county to deal with the incident.

Local lanes normally quiet on a winter evening were alive with screaming sirens. A police helicopter hovered overhead, and roadblocks were thrown up on the coast road to stop traffic going past the site.

Norfolk fire service said the blaze was in a “water treatment plant” on the Shell UK site, and that nine appliances and numerous support vehicles were at the scene.

A spokesman confirmed there had been initial reports of an explosion and a “major fire” although right from the start it was not believed that chemicals were involved. Foam fire-fighting equipment was used on the site to help tackle the blaze.

A silver control centre had been set up at North Walsham fire station, which also involved police personnel.

Shell said 46 people were safely evacuated from its terminal and that the fire was out by 7.30pm, with “no threat to the local area”.

The company confirmed the fire was in the waste water system, but had been “extinguished safely, the plant shut down safely” and everything was under control.

A statement from the company said: “There is no threat to the health of personnel at the site. The incident will be investigated by Shell and the relevant authorities, as is normal under these circumstances.”

Bacton is one of the largest gas terminal complexes in the UK with a third of the nation’s gas landing ashore from the southern North Sea before being distributed across the UK.

The site has five separate terminals processing supplies from three main North Sea fields. It also receives gas from Belgium and the rest of Europe from the Interconnector terminal, with this aspect of the site operated and maintained by around 35 staff with a team on site 24 hours a day.

Last night, Norfolk police sent an automated message to 360 homes in the Bacton area confirming the fire was out and the plant shut down safely.

Local councillor and member of the gas terminal liaison committee Wyndham Northam said he was very impressed with the terminal’s emergency arrangements, adding: “If there is an incident, I am quite content they would be able to control it themselves. It is very effective. It is a very well-run organisation.”

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