HC Deb 03 April 1969 vol 781 cc696-707

1.51 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

On Monday morning, 16th September, 1968 an explosion occurred in 46 East Street, South Stifford, West Thurrock. Why the attention of this House should be brought to this occurrence, and why now and not sooner, will become apparent during the debate.

The explosion occurred immediately after Thurrock had had the heaviest rainfall that this country has ever known. More than eight inches of rain was recorded in the previous 48 hours. Steps were at once taken to find out the cause of the explosion and whether there was danger of another explosion, or even of others. The North Thames Gas Board checked the gas supply system and found no leak. Gas, electricity and water supplies were cut off in East Street and in two neighbouring streets. These services were not restored until after each property had been thoroughly tested and declared safe. They were all cleared by midnight on Tuesday, 17th September.

The next day, 18th September—two days after the explosion—Thurrock Council contacted the Royal Society of Chemists and asked for advice on the appointment of an expert consultant chemist to investigate the cause of the explosion and to recommend what steps ought to be taken to prevent a recurrence. As a result of the Society's recommendation, the services of Dr. M. Barent were engaged.

Dr. Barent's investigation turned out to be long and arduous. He was not able to report to the Thurrock Urban District Council until the end of January. He discovered that in the area there had been three immense spillages of petroleum. In this area—and I will refer to this later—there are very large oil installations. Dr. Barent discovered that there had been a spillage of 370 tons in July, 1966, 40 tons in October, 1966, and 37 tons in August, 1968, just a short time before the floods and the explosion.

Having taken everything into consideration, Dr. Barent formed the opinion that the explosion at No. 46 East Street was caused by the ignition of an explosive mixture of petrol vapour and air, and that this petrol vapour was derived wholly or mainly from the spillage in July 1966. That was the large spillage of 370 tons.

He also took the view that the exceptional rainfall was responsible for raising petrol vapour that had accumulated below the house and expressing it into the ground floor, where it was able to gain access because there was no impermeable barrier to impede its transfer from the ground to the house. He then made his recommendations about what should be done to remedy this situation and to prevent further explosions.

I am aware that the Government know all about this—at least the two Government Departments concerned, the Home Office and the Ministry of Power, which operate respectively the two Acts of Parliament which deal with the storage of petrol and with the construction and operation of pipelines: the Petroleum Act, 1928, and the Pipelines Act, 1962.

These two Departments know all about it because they have Dr. Barent's report. But, even before that, the Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office, and the Pipelines Inspector, Ministry of Power, had been in constant consultation with the Thurrock Council.

Why raise the matter now? There are several reasons. First, within the urban district of Thurrock, with its 18 miles of Thames-side frontage, lies the largest concentration of oil installations in the United Kingdom—the largest, indeed, in North-West Europe. It is a major risk area.

We in Thurrock are concerned about the safety and, indeed, the comfort and the peace of mind of the people who live near these installations. We are also concerned about deficiencies in the present legislation to prevent further accidents or, if they occur, to deal with the situation afterwards.

We feel that the Government have not shown sufficient active interest at South Stifford. In everything that has happened as a result of this explosion—investigations, experiments and measures taken afterwards—the Government have been conspicuous by their absence and by their silence. There may be reasons for this, but we should like to know them.

Everything had to be initiated, co-ordinated and carried out by the Thurrock Urban District Council. The researches of Dr. Barent and the Council's petroleum officers, consultations with senior civil servants, participation of the Essex River Authority, sewage authorities, other authorities and petroleum companies were left to Thurrock Council. Thurrock Council did it all splendidly, but we think that the Government should have actively participated. We think that there should have been an official Government inquiry.

Even in his correspondence with me, my hon. Friend seems blandly unaware of any Government responsibility. He, too, refers everything to the council. He says: The Council are at present exploring different methods. … Work will be put in hand as soon as the Council have decided which method will be best… It is entirely for the Council to decide what action, if any, should be taken against the company in respect of the spillage. And so on. Everything is referred back to the council.

It is the opinion of the council—and my opinion, too—that the laws governing the storage of oil and the construction and operation of pipelines need amending and extending. I know that it would be out of Order in an Adjournment debate for me to ask for new legislation, but I draw the attention of the House to a document which has been sent from Thurrock Council to my hon. Friend at the Home Office and to the Ministry of Power commenting on the existing laws, pointing out how they were deficient in South Stifford and how they ought to be changed. It is an admirable document of 33 paragraphs. I hope that it will be carefully studied and the opinions on it made known by the two Ministeries. Strictly speaking we ought to have two Ministers here this morning, because two Ministers are responsible for this matter, but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has been in touch with the Ministry of Power on this subject which concerns them both.

It is not in order to ask for new legislation today, but it is in order to comment on the present law. Under the existing legislation the Government can impose different requirements for different areas; in other words, they can demand special requirements for areas of greater hazard. They can insist that additional valves be installed so that sections of the line can be isolated in case of leakage, spillage, or any other accident. Under the present Acts the Government have the power, and we believe the duty, to consult local fire authorities. We want to know what consideration has been given to this area where the hazards are obvious, where there are larger oil installations than almost anywhere else in Europe. We want to know whether additional valves have been installed as provided for by Act of Parliament. We want to know what consultation has taken place between the Government Departments concerned and the fire authority, and indeed with any other authority.

There are many other things that we want to know. We want to know, for example, why penalties for contravening the Acts are so ludicrously small. It appears that no legal action can be taken by the Minister of Power in respect of spillages themselves. This apparently is not a fault. The only fault is failure to notify the appropriate authorities of any spillage, and even then the penalty for failure to notify is a paltry £50. We believe that the penalties should be greatly increased.

Those are some of the reasons why we still want a Government inquiry. It is no good the Government saying that there has been sufficient inquiry. No inquiry has been made into the matters which I have raised. The Barent inquiry was not meant to cover those matters. It was set up exclusively to consider the causes of the explosion and the measures to be taken to prevent another one. Only the Government can examine the matters which I have raised. Only the Government can give any answer to them. That is why we want a Government inquiry. I am asking for this on behalf of the Thurrock Council, and on behalf of the residents of South Stifford in West Thurrock.

The people there have had a harrowing experience, one they will never forget. For days and nights they lived in an atmosphere of danger, and they want to be assured, and they have a right to be assured, that this dread threat has been removed forever. This assurance should come from the highest authority, from the Government.

I am glad that in the final paragraph of his letter to me my hon. Friend said: I can assure them —that is, the council and the residents— that all the authorities concerned will be reviewing their own field of responsibility and will be taking a critical look at the present form of controls. The chief authority concerned is the Government, so I am glad to note that the Government will be reviewing their field of responsibility and taking a critical look at the present form of controls. That is pretty good, but it is still not quite good enough.

The last thing that I want to ask for is that the people be told, and told out loud, about this review and about this critical look at the form of controls. That is why I am asking for this Government inquiry on behalf of the council and on behalf of the people who live in this danger zone.

2.5 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I fully share the concern which prompted my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) to speak on this subject today, and I am glad to have this opportunity of clarifying the Government's position in relation to the important issues of public safety which he has raised. One of the first matters in which I had to be involved when I first went to the Home Office was this explosion. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me notice of the matters which he proposed to raise.

My hon. Friend has been in the House for considerably longer than I have, and the last thing that he would want is to be patronised by me, but I must tell the House that right from the beginning my hon. Friend has been in touch with the Home Office about this issue. He has been as much involved with this matter as any hon. Member could be. This is not something that my hon. Friend has raised in the last few days because an opportunity has arisen for an Adjournment debate. He has been involved in this issue right from the beginning.

My hon. Friend has described the explosion last September at 46 East Street, South Stifford, and there is no reason for me to go over the details again. I was sorry to hear of the accident to Mrs. Glover and her child, and I hope that both have fully recovered. I agree that for the residents in the area this must have been a very harrowing experience.

There is no statutory requirement—and I shall come to the point about what one can do about this—for an explosion of this kind to be notified to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and we did not learn of the explosion until a few days after it had occurred, when the South Stifford Residents' Association wrote to us. We immediately called for a report from Thurrock Urban District Council, the local authority in whose area the explosion occurred. We discovered that the Council had already engaged a technical consultant to make a detailed investigation. We learned that there had been an earlier history of complaints from local residents about the smell of petroleum spirit and that these had been investigated by the local authority and by the Gas Board with no positive result.

At about the time the Council's consultant began his investigations the council discovered that apart from spillages already known to it there had been a considerable spillage of petroleum spirit in the area about two years previously. The consultant's preliminary inquiries showed that petrol was present in the ground at a number of places in the area of East Street, and although the direct cause of the explosion could not be established at that stage, the provisional conclusion was that spilled petrol had seeped underground in the direction of East Street. My hon. Friend knows the area better than I do. He is an expert on it, as well as being a Member of Parliament. Seepage depends to a large degree on the slope of the ground, and petrol was present in the ground in a number of places in the area of East Street.

Mr. Delargy

It is very low-lying ground near the river. It is obvious that petrol would seep into it.

Mr. Rees

As I was saying, the provisional conclusion was that spilled petrol had seeped underground in the direction of East Street. Vapour had then risen up from the ground through the floor of the house and had formed an explosive mixture which had been ignited in some way, perhaps by a pilot light. The possibility that the explosion had been caused by gas was investigated, but rejected. All subsequent action proceeded on the basis of this preliminary assessment of the cause of the explosion and there now seems little doubt that this assumption was correct.

As my hon. Friend said, South Stifford lies in that part of Essex which borders on the Thames, and, as we have heard, contains a number of extensive oil storage depots fed by pipe-lines from jetties where sea-tankers tie up to off-load. I well recall that that part of the world was a target in the last war for the same reasons. The storage depôts are licensed by Thurrock Council under the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act, 1928. Under this Act, it is entirely for the local authority concerned to decide whether a licence should be issued or not, and if so, on what conditions, but an applicant may appeal to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary against the decision of a local authority if he has been refused licence or objects to any conditions the local authority proposes to attach to it. The standard conditions on which licences are issued by the Thurrock Council for the storage of petroleum spirit include a requirement that spillages should be reported to it. My right hon. Friend has no powers in this respect.

As for pipe-lines, as opposed to storage, the position is, broadly speaking, that these may not be laid except in accordance with the provisions of the Pipe-lines Act, 1962, which, among other matters, are designed to ensure that any product conveyed in pipe-lines will present no undue hazard to the public. In particular, spillages from pipe-lines must be reported to the appropriate fire, police, river and sewerage authorities. If there is a burst or explosion in the pipe-line, or the product in the pipe-line ignites, a report must be made to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power. My hon. Friend is right; two Government Departments are involved. But I must emphasise that the Minister of Power, like the Home Secretary, has no power to deal with spillages as such.

I understand that three spillages may be relevant to the present incident. One of these, in August, 1968, involved the loss of 36 tons of product from premises licensed by the Thurrock Council. A ton of petroleum spirit is a considerable amount. The other two spillages were from pipe-lines. The first, in July, 1966, was caused by a faulty connection in a pipe-line, and 368 tons were lost. The second spillage occurred in October, 1966, when 40 tons were lost as a result of a corroded pipe. The first of these two pipe-line spillages was not reported at the time either to the Thurrock Council or to any other statutory authority.

Responsibility for dealing with spillages of this kind under the law as it stands is primarily a matter for the local authority in pursuance of its normal statutory functions in connection with public health, highways, sewerage and other services. It was clearly right, however, that central Government should give what help it could, and my right hon. Friend accordingly arranged for Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives, who are his technical advisers in petroleum spirit matters, to visit the area and to keep in close touch with the council's advisers. It was at that point that I came into the picture; I am speaking personally now and not for the Department.

Similar arrangements were made in the case of the Inspector of Pipe-lines by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power. The Government are therefore closely in touch with all that is being done to reduce to the minimum any possible risk to the residents from the spillages I have mentioned.

It is not necessary for me to describe in detail this afternoon the nature of the investigations that have taken place or the many complex factors which have had to be taken into account by the council's technical adviser who has been acting in consultation with the council's own professional staff, the oil companies concerned, the Essex River Authority and Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives. I need only say that these investigations have been both thorough and far-reaching.

The investigations, which included the drilling of bore-holes at strategic positions in the affected area, pointed to the presence of an appreciable volume of petrol in the ground immediately to the east of the railway sidings, that is, in the opposite direction from East Street. This petrol is considered to be potentially recoverable, and a trench has therefore been dug across the area so that the petrol may drain into it and then be pumped out. The technical experts are agreed that this method should effectively dispose of most of the concentration of petrol in this area.

There is no evidence to suggest that there is a similar concentration of petrol on the other side of the railway sidings towards East Street. I want to make it clear that my previous reference was to the area away from East Street. Similar recovery methods in this area are therefore not appropriate. Tests of air and soil samples, however, have shown the presence of petroleum spirit in the earth beneath the houses in East Street in the form of impregnated gravel about 10 feet below the surface. Arrangements have therefore been made by the council for residents to report any smells so that an investigation may be made at once whether a dangerous atmosphere is present. The council is also carrying out sparodic tests within the area with a view to its receiving the earliest possible warning of the presence of petroleum vapour.

As a precaution against the possibility of concentrations of vapour collecting beneath the floorboards of the houses in East Street the council has accepted the recommendation of the expert advisers that the houses which are not already built on concerete oversites should have some form of sealing. The council is exploring various methods of doing this, and the work will be put in hand, with the agreement of the householders concerned, as soon as it has decided which method will be best.

All the work is being carried out at the expense of the oil companies concerned. I should like to make it clear that all the technical experts, including H.M. Inspectors of Explosives, agree that any hazards remaining in the residential area can be reduced to negligible proportions by means of these precautions, and that householders need no longer be afraid. There is no question, for example, of its being necessary to replace all domestic gas appliances.

As my hon. Friend explained, the residents in the area affected have understandably expressed their grave concern at the possibility of another explosion and have repeatedly called for a public inquiry so as to elicit the full facts relating to the present situation and, in particular, to obtain reassurances for the future. The need for a public inquiry has been very carefully considered by my right hon. Friend but he has concluded that in the light of the exhaustive investigations undertaken under the direction of the council, and the agreed remedial measures already in hand, such an inquiry would serve no useful purpose. I am satisfied that all practical steps to secure the safety of the residents in East Street are being taken: this is clearly the most immediate and urgent task.

In the longer term, the council will be turning its attention to such questions as how best to avoid a repetition of this kind of situation, and what action, if any, should be taken in respect of the oil companies concerned. In all this, by statute, this is the responsibility of the local authority, but in matters such as this the expert advice of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Explosives will continue to be available to the council so long as it is needed.

Mr. Delargy

Besides the benefit of the advice of experts, could not the Government give an undertaking that at least the co-ordination of all these inquiries should be helped by the Government and not left entirely to the urban district council?

Mr. Rees

I remember this matter very clearly, not just because it has been raised today but because it was one of the first matters which faced me when I transferred from another Department. On that occasion, co-ordination of authorities which were concerned with this took place—I am thinking nationally now—and there was discussion of what was being done locally. This was very much on my mind, because one of my previous responsibilities, in the context of the Services, had been what happens in a national disaster. My present Department was certainly looking at the matter in exactly the same way, considering what was going on, whether the oil companies had been approached, who was down there dealing with the matter, whether the police and fire authorities had been informed. That was being done and it did not need my arrival at the Department to have it done.

Apart from co-ordination, we are taking a critical look at existing statutory safeguards and procedures in the light of the very full investigations which have taken place into this incident and the lessons which have been learned. Something of this kind has happened, and obviously one must see whether the existing legislation is the right way to deal with it. Of course, the area that my hon. Friend represents is a big area and is not typical of the country as a whole. Nevertheless, a critical look is being taken at this matter in the light of all the information which we have and the lessons which have been learned.

I need hardly say that the Government's concern, like that of my hon. Friend arises as much from our appreciation of local feelings as from anything else. I hope that what I have said will serve to reassure the residents of South Stifford and underline the practical interest which the Government have in the council's efforts to deal with this unprecedented situation.

My hon. Friend has completely understood the situation—the two Government Departments which are involved, the two pieces of legislation which have to be operated—and he has also taken the point, without my telling him, that the local authorities have a responsibility under the legislation. I should like to repeat that we have taken note of the investigations and what they have thrown up and that we are looking very critically to see whether, after this passage of time—one of the Acts is relatively old and the other much younger, the 1962 Act, although that is the responsibility of the Minister of Power, who will, of course, take note of what has been said today—there are any lessons to be learned for the longer term.

In the shorter term, I hope that what I have said will reassure my hon. Friend's constituents, because we all realise that this has not been a pleasant experience. But they should be reassured that, whoever else has been making representations and chasing Government Departments, my hon. Friend has been in the lead in that respect.