Energy giant Shell UK Limited has been ordered by Norwich Crown Court to pay a total of £1,242,000 ($2.1m) in fines and costs over the explosion and fire at its Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk, England in 2008.
The explosion blew the concrete roof off a buffering tank within the plant, spreading concrete and metal debris over a large area and sucking a nearby drain out of the ground. After investigating the incident, the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive and its Environment Agency jointly prosecuted the firm over safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures at the plant.
Investigators traced the cause of the explosion to a leak of highly flammable hydrocarbon liquid into a part of the plant responsible for treating wastewater before discharging it into the sea.
The leak was caused by the failure of a corroded metal separator vessel, which allowed water contaminated with the highly flammable condensate to enter a concrete storage tank where it was heated by an electric heater. The heater’s elements were exposed within the tank, raising the surface temperature significantly, leading to the explosion and fire.
The court heard that during the incident there was an unauthorized release into the North Sea, which ought to have been prevented, of 850 metric tons of fire-fighting foam and water.
Shell UK had failed to close the sea gate until about an hour after the fire started, the court found. It also failed to notify the Environment Agency, as required, meaning that valuable advice on environmental protection during the incident and its aftermath was not available to either Shell or the fire service – an emergency response priority first identified in 2004. The delay in notification also meant an assessment of environmental harm was not possible, the court heard.
At an earlier hearing Shell pleaded guilty to seven charges covering safety, environmental control and pollution-prevention failures at the plant that led to the blast.
Shell UK was fined a total of £1,000,000 and ordered to pay £242,000 in costs.
The Environment Agency environment manager for Norfolk and Suffolk, Marcus Sibley, said: “The explosion could have led to a major environmental disaster as other highly flammable materials were stored nearby.”
“What happened was completely unacceptable and falls well below the standards that we set for ourselves. Safety is our company’s priority and so an incident like this is deeply disappointing,” Shell UK said in a statement on Monday, Reuters reports.