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Liverpool Daily Post: Oil giant fined £¼m for allowing gas leak

Mar 13 2008 by Richard Down, Liverpool Daily Post

OIL giant Shell has been ordered to pay £300,000 in fines and costs, and forced to spend millions on improvements after letting 20 tonnes of highly flammable and toxic gas escape through a corroded pipe.

Yesterday Judge Roger Dutton fined Shell UK Oil Products Limited £266,681, and ordered them to pay £37,131.62 in costs.

Warrington Crown Court heard workers had a “narrow escape” at the Stanlow plant, Ellesmere Port, when the lighter fluid and lethal hydrofluoride (HF) burst out of a relief pipe.

The fines come after the company poured in £5.5m to improve the plant and suspended production there for several weeks in 2003.

The combined impact on Shell is thought to be figured in multi-millions.

Health and Safety Executive inspector Keith Morris said: “I think this is a satisfactory penalty at the end of a process. Our message to all companies is to ensure that robust maintenance is carried out to prevent corrosion of pipes, which was the cause of this incident.”

Shell admitted failing to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents, by its failure to contain a flammable toxic gas.

On May 29, 2003, 20 tonnes of isobutane (LPG), mixed with 150 kg of hydrogen fluoride escaped into the atmosphere from a corroded pipe in the HF alkylation plant.

Because of the quantities released, the incident was reported to the European Commission.

HSE experts inspected the site after the incident and concluded that Shell had lost control of corrosion processes within the pipe to such an extent that a failure became inevitable.

Shell, in one of its own reports, estimated that such an incident could have resulted in multiple deaths and damage to buildings over a significant area.

Secondary explosions could have resulted in a major fire leading to catastrophic damage. Stanlow general manager Yuri Sebregts said: “At today’s hearing we were pleased that the judge recognised mitigating circumstances, namely our co-operation with the HSE investigation, that there was no suggestion of putting profit before safety or the deliberate running of risks, and he pointed out that a recent independent technical safety audit rated the Stanlow HFA plant as one of the safest of its kind in the world.


Related article

Liverpool Daily Post: Shell admits blame for near disaster at Stanlow

Feb 23 2008 by Richard Down, Liverpool Daily Post

OIL giant Shell has admitted blame for a potentially lethal gas leak at a Merseyside refinery.

Explosive isobutane gas mixed with 20 tonnes of lighter fluid burst from a neglected pipe at the Stanlow petro-chemical plant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

The energy company has admitted blame for allowing a safety pipe to corrode so badly that it split wide open.

Shell pleaded guilty at Chester Crown Court yesterday to failing to comply with control of major accident hazard regulations for several years running up to the accident in May 2003.

No-one was injured in the incident, but Judge Roger Dutton was told if it had exploded, there would have been multiple casualties.

Shell uses the chemicals to improve octane levels in lead free fuel.

Simon Parrington, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said: “The escape of gas was caused by Shell’s failure to properly inspect and maintain the pipe.

“In different circumstances, the consequences of this incident could have been very serious indeed.

“The issue we are concerned with is the toxicity of the gas. It is lethal and could have caused many fatalities.”

Mr Parrington said if, by chance, the jet of toxic gas leaked from the bottom instead of the top of the pipe, it could have sparked a chain of events leading to death and the destruction of key sections of the plant.

At the centre of the prosecution’s case was a series of failures in the inspection of the pipework.

The six-inch pipe had been neglected for years, Mr Parrington said.

“The company failed in its duty to take the necessary measures to avoid a serious accident.

“This is a company which has posted £13.7bn in profits and it has huge resources at its disposal.”

A HSE inspection of the Stanlow site after the incident found no further cause for concern.

Graham Wells, defending Shell UK, disputed the exact cause of the corrosion inside the pipe but added: “The defendant accepts this was a serious matter.

“The process is one which uses hazardous chemicals and the escape happened because the pipe was corroded.

“Pipes should not corrode and this is the basis of the guilty plea.”

Judge Dutton adjourned the hearing for sentencing at a later date.

In a statement, Yuri Sebregts, Stanlow’s general manager, said: “We responded quickly after the event and since then we have co-operated fully with the HSE in their investigation.

“Changes have been made to the plant and procedures to ensure the problem will not re-occur.

“Nevertheless, we regret the incident and our learning from it has been noted and shared with other producers.”

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