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The Standard (Ellesmere Port): SHELL OIL has been fined more than £260,000 for leaking a highly toxic gas.

20 March 2008

Location: CHESTER

About 20 tonnes of isobutene, a flammable and toxic gas, escaped from a corroded pipe at the Stanlow Manufacturing Complex in Ellesmere Port on May 29, 2003.

The company admitted failing to comply with health and safety at work regulations and was fined £266,681 and ordered to pay £37,131.62 costs by Judge Roger Dutton at Warrington Crown Court last week.

At a previous sentencing hearing at Chester Crown Court, Simon Parrington, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said the accident, at about 11pm at the HA Alkylation Plant at Stanlow, had the “potential for loss of life.”

Mr Parrington said: “The pressure relief valve in the hydrofluoride plant corroded to such an extent it fractured and burned and 20 tonnes of lighter fuel and 150kg of hydrogen fluoride at Stanlow escaped. It was treated as a major accident.”

Health and Safety Executive experts inspected the site and concluded 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 such an incident could have resulted in multiple fatalities and damage to buildings over a significant area and secondary explosions could have resulted in a major fire leading to catastrophic damage.

The pipe failure caused a jet of gas, which went upwards and formed a cloud which drifted 10-15 metres above the site.

Mr Parrington added: “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.”

Graham Wells, defending Shell UK, said the company accepted it was a serious matter.
He said: “Pipes should not corrode and this is the basis of the guilty plea.”

Justin McCracken, HSE’s deputy chief executive, said: “This case illustrates the importance of having effective maintenance regimes for plants dealing with hazardous substances and processes. “They should include the prevention of corrosion and the careful monitoring of the state of all safety critical equipment, including pipe work. “The company was lucky that this incident did not have very severe consequences.”

In a statement, Stanlow’s general manager Yuri Sebregts 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 that 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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