HC Deb 24 November 1970 vol 807 cc371-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. Hawkins.]

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for making it possible for me to raise the subject of fire hazards on Canvey Island. As may be known, I have been trying to raise the subject for some weeks past. It is therefore a pure coincidence that a public inquiry opened this morning on Canvey to hear objections from residents to a proposal to introduce an additional hazard in the from of a large oil refinery.

I have had the honour to represent Canvey in this House for over 20 years, and I think I can claim to know the island like the back of my hand. I still have vivid memories of the great flood disaster of 1953, when the islanders were the worst hit of all the East Coast communities and many lives were lost. The lesson was learned. The island sea defences were greatly strengthened, confidence was restored, population grew, and we now have a flourishing community of over 25,000.

This large and growing community, however, is still dependent, as it was in 1953, on a single line of communication with the mainland, passing over a ramshackle bridge which has been a constant source of anxiety for as long as I can remember. True, the island is to have a new approach road by 1972, but its growing traffic and its emergency services will have to depend on a single, tenuous link until then.

Along the southern-western edge of the island are three industrial installations regarded by the authorities as major fire risks: the important North Thames Gas Board methane terminal, the London and coastal oil wharves, and the Regent Oil Company's storage tanks. About a mile to the west, across the creek in neighbouring Thurrock—whose representative in the House I am glad to see in his place—are three other installations which are classed as major fire risks: the Mobil oil refinery at Coryton, Thames Haven Wharves and the Shell oil refinery at Shell Haven.

In February, despite strong protests from me, backed by thousands of my constituents and by the local authorities, the late Government decided to grant industrial development certificates to two international oil companies to establish refineries on Canvey Island despite obvious planning and amenity objections. One of these companies has gone ahead, and their application is the subject of the public inquiry which opened today.

One must readily concede that modern oil refineries are generally well conducted installations, where the utmost care is taken to prevent fire or to contain it once it has broken out. They have their own highly efficient fire-fighting force. But they are not immune to trouble, as the disastrous Texaco refinery fire at Milford Haven showed as recently as last month. It is for this reason that they should never be sited near residential areas.

In the last three years the Essex Fire Brigade has responded to 54 calls from the refineries and other high risk installations in Thurrock and Canvey, and 45 of these were calls to the Thurrock installations. One of these calls was to a serious fire which occurred at the Shell Haven refinery in June, which started after explosions in a pump house. More than 200 firemen fought through the night as flames leaping 150 feet high menaced some 25,000 tons of oil. Three men were badly burned and taken to hospital. It was announced that the Shell Company would make a report but that this would not be published.

On 2nd July I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), who was then Minister of Technology, drawing his attention to the fact that this report would not be published and that many of my constituents were worried about the implications. I pointed out how vulnerable Canvey is—vulnerable in the double sense; because of its own complex of fire hazards and because of its dependence upon a single line of communication with the mainland. I asked my right hon. Friend whether he was satisfied that there were no lessons to be learned which ought to be published.

I was told that although the report would not be made public copies would be sent to the Thurrock Urban District Council's petroleum officer, to H.M. Inspector of Factories and to the Essex Fire Brigade, and that H.M. Inspector of Explosives would keep very much in mind the need to pass on any useful information to the petroleum officer for Canvey Island.

That was reassuring, except that in the five months that have since elapsed no information has been passed to the petroleum officer for Canvey Island, despite the distinct impression of the clerk of the local council who, as secretary of the Thamesside Oil Refinery Sub-Committee, had written separately to the Inspector of Explosives, that he would be told what lessons had been learned. He has heard nothing since. Nor did I until late yesterday afternoon, after it was known that I would be raising this matter tonight. I understand now that some information will be given to Canvey Island. It is about time.

On 11th November the local Press reported that yet another fire had broken out at the Shell refinery. We have no information as to whether it was serious.

My hon. Friend will forgive me if I point out that disasters do not respect local government boundaries and that in this case one would have thought that common sense and common prudence would require that a report of what had happened should have gone automatically, not only to Thurrock Urban District Council, but to Canvey Urban District Council as well. The significance of this will be seen in a few moments.

On the night of 26th July, as though the gods had decided to teach everyone a lesson, the 10,000-ton passenger vessel "Monte Ulia", bound for Tilbury, veered off course and hit the Mobil Oil jetty at Coryton with such force that the impact was heard a mile away. The ship swung round and grounded on a sandbank off Canvey, but the impact set off a terrifying chain reaction. A pipeline on the jetty was fractured and hundreds of tons of crude oil gushed out into the estuary and burst into flames. As the blazing oil snaked round Canvey Island commercial tugs, happily on the spot, battled to stop the flames from spreading. Two blazing barges moored to the Mobil jetty broke loose and were swept down on the ebb tide towards the London and Coastal wharf on Canvey Island where a tanker was unloading hundreds of tons of highly inflammable fuel. A general alarm was sounded. Shipping in the estuary was halted. Thanks to the splendid exertions of the Essex Fire Brigade, the fire was eventually brought under control.

Nevertheless, had the tugs not been providentially on the scene, and had the wind and tide directions not been favourable, it is almost certain that there would have been a major disaster. A spokesman for the Port of London Authority was reported in the Evening Echo as saying: We have been very lucky. There has been nothing like this since the war. It went off like a bomb. There was a terrible risk involved with so much fuel around. Certainly we have had a lucky escape. But within a few days constituents were asking me if I knew how lucky we had been. Did I know, for example, that at the London and Coastal Jetty, towards which the blazing barges had headed, the arrangement for fire fighting was to use a product line and that when the firemen arrived the line was full of fuel and could not be charged with water because the mechanism was defective?

I wrote at once to the Essex County Council, as fire authority, and asked if this was true. The reply I received confirmed that, although the installation on land was equipped with a ring main water system to be used exclusively for fire fighting, this did not extend to the jetty where the emergency had arisen. Here, it was quite true, the arrangements in an emergency were to use a product line which would have to be cleared of inflammable fuel before it could be charged with water.

The county clerk conceded that, although such an arrangement had been considered reasonable in the past, it was so no longer. He said that schemes envisaging an arrangement of this kind would not now be accepted in view of the delay which must occur in clearing lines back to ships or storage tanks and then removing residual products. He added, however, that the extension of the ring main system to the jetty would not take place until next year and implied that this might not happen until a new jetty had been built. Incidentally, there had been a little delay in getting the main fire system working, but it was working by the time that the blazing barge came within range. The clerk told me that this was a serious matter as it could have caused difficulties under different circumstances. I understand that the defect has now been put right.

It is clear to me that not only were the arrangements for fire fighting less than satisfactory at this particular installation but that they will remain so until some time next year. Councillor William Ashworth, who represents half the island on the county council, pursued the matter independently and he told me only a few days ago that he is deeply concerned at what he has been told and he supports what I am saying tonight.

I am not concerned here with apportioning any blame. I have no doubt that the arrangements at the London and Coastal wharves comply fully with existing regulations. They must do so, because they were inspected as recently as June. The question arises, however, as to whether the conditions imposed under the regulations are adequate. There is every reason to believe that they are not.

In this connection, I recall that in August 1969 my hon. Friend's predecessor in the Home Office wrote to one of my Canvey constituents who had inquired about fire precautions at the neighbouring methane terminal. He said that there had been 55 fire incidents in the previous four years, only one of which had caused serious anxiety. He then added: All necessary precautions are taken to ensure that occupiers of neighbouring properties are not endangered". Very reassuring, But, surely that applies to all other industrial fire risks on Canvey Island. Can it be said with certainty of the London Coastal wharves? If not, what is being done about it?

On the day after the "Monte Ulia" incident, I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble), then President of the Board of Trade. I told him what had happened. I asked whether a routine inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts had been put in train, and whether there were any lessons to be learned. I asked him to appreciate that on Canvey Island we are particularly sensitive to matters of this kind since we already have extensive oil and methane storage facilities and a very large residential population, with only a slender line of communication to the mainland. I referred also to the proposal to erect a new oil refinery, which was bound to increase the amount of oil traffic off our shores and, therefore, the degree of hazard.

On 7th August I was told that a preliminary inquiry had been ordered and was proceeding. Since then, nearly four months have passed. Although I have made repeated requests to the Department for information, again I heard nothing until yesterday, that is, after it was known that I would be raising the matter on the Adjournment tonight. I am now told that I shall be kept informed. That is a little late in the day.

It will be seen, therefore, that my constituents and I have good grounds for complaint, and all the more so when it is realised that an additional hazard in the shape of an entirely new refinery with storage facilities for highly explosive gases, and all the accompanying ancillary risks, may be thrust on the island very soon.

I assure the House that in raising this matter tonight I am reflecting the views and anxieties not only of Canvey's experienced county councillors, Mr. Ashworth and Mr. Pickett, who represent the Conservative and Labour Parties, but of the local authority and most of the island's representative organisations as well. I am delighted also to see present the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), who represents the neighbouring constituency, whose interests are bound up with ours in this matter.

I wish to make plain that I make no criticism whatever of either the Essex fire brigade or Canvey's part-time firemen. I yield to no one in admiration for the skill and courage which these men display at all times. No doubt, if the existing fire hazards on Canvey Island are to be deliberately increased, our present arrangements for fire fighting will have to be changed and the regular force may have to be strengthened. But, in the meantime, these men as well as my constituents as a whole are entitled to expect that the fire risks are kept to the minimum.

I wish, therefore, to put the following questions to my hon. Friend. First, bearing in mind our experience, will he ensure that in future when there are any lessons to be learned from fires at industrial plants regarded as high risks, these are transmitted automatically and without delay to all neighbouring authorities where there are similar fire risks, and not merely to the fire authority?

Second, since the Home Office is primarily responsible for preventing disasters from occurring and for dealing with them when they occur, will he ensure that other Departments, especially the Department of Trade and Industry, bestir themselves more energetically than they did in this case when hon. Members raise questions touching on the safety of their constituents?

Third, will he see that an appropriate officer inquires into the situation on Canvey Island, so that he—I refer to my hon. Friend in whom I have complete faith and confidence—can satisfy himself as well as everyone else concerned that our existing fire precautions are really adequate?

Fourth, will he draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment—how aptly his collection of responsibilities is named in the context of this debate—to the dangers, indeed, the folly, of permitting an additional refinery to be established in an area where there are already far too many major fire hazards for the health and safety of a large and growing resident population?

I have no wish to be alarmist. Indeed, I am choosing my words carefully. But the Aberfan disaster crept upon us largely unawares precisely because no one ever thought that it was his responsibility to calculate the risks being taken. I beg my hon. Friend to make sure that his colleagues understand fully that, before any deliberate decision is taken to add to the existing fire hazards on Canvey Island, they must remind themselves that the safety of more than 25,000 human beings is involved.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. H. J. Delargy (Thurrock)

Time is short and I must be brief. As the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) has indicated, my constituency is very concerned with this question. Of the four major oil refineries on the river, three are in my constituency. Four miles of our river front is being used for the storage and processing of oil. So we have experience of the fearful hazards of the industry. All the firms in my constituency have in turn contributed to these hazards. I will give a few examples from the last three or four years.

Esso was responsible in 1968 for a spillage of 54 tons of naphtha; and in 1969 another 700 tons; Shell was responsible for fires in 1969 and 1970; Lathol was responsible in 1965 for a 250 ton tank explosion; Murco was responsible for spillages in 1966 and 1967; Paktank was responsible for explosions in 1968 in West Thurrock, which I raised in the House. It was an explosion which kept all the residents in that area in constant fear for many weeks. These hazards are not merely hazards; they are certainties and dangers which exist and from which the people have suffered.

The Thurrock Council would deprecate the siting of another oil refinery in this locality. It would create an over-concentration aggravating the existing air and river pollution and detracting from the safety and convenience of people who live in Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham. The siting of an additional jetty of this kind would be highly dangerous because this section of the river is already exceptionally busy. I have been extremely brief, but I hope I have said enough to indicate our feelings in Thurrock and our support for all opposition to the erection of a new refinery on Canvey Island.

10.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) has raised a matter which I know is of very great importance to his constituents. I am sure they will appreciate the force and clarity with which he put the case. I was also glad that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) had the opportunity to intervene briefly and to put the point of view of his constituents, which is equally of very great importance. As they will appreciate, a number of Ministries have responsibility in this matter including the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, and I give an assurance that I shall ensure that all the points they have brought up in the debate are brought to the attention of those Ministries.

It would be helpful if I were to say a few words about the present position on Canvey Island. As I understand it, at the moment on Canvey Island there are three major fire risks. First, there is an installation where liquid methane is stored; secondly, there is a major petroleum storage installation; and thirdly, there is the oil wharf to which my hon. Friend has referred. All these installations are subject to the licensing provisions of the Petroleum Consolidation Act, 1928.

This Act provides that premises where petroleum spirit is kept must be licensed by the local authority, which may refuse to grant a licence, or may attach to the licence such conditions as it considers necessary to ensure the safe keeping of the petroleum spirit. There is in this connection the right of appeal to the Home Secretary. Similar provisions apply to the storage of liquid methane, to which the Act has been applied by an Order in Council under Section 19 of the 1928 Act.

Local authorities are guided in the exercise of their licensing functions under the Act by a Model Code of Principles of Construction and Licensing Conditions for Petroleum Installations. This was revised in 1968 by the Home Secretary's Standing Advisory Committee on Dangerous Substances, on which both the local authority associations and industry are represented. The recommendations of the Code are not binding on licensing authorities, but in fact most local authorities have adopted these recommendations as the basis of their licensing conditions.

The recommendations of the Code in respect of major installations cover such matters as siting; safety distances between storage tanks, and also between tanks and the perimeter of the installation; fire precautions, including the provision of fire walls round tanks; and the provision of fire-fighting facilities at the installation. Perhaps most important, the Code makes it clear that consultation should take place between the applicant, the licensing authority and the fire authority at the early planning stages. This is to ensure that, so far as possible, the fire protection and fire-fighting arrangements are to the satisfaction of the fire authority. The expertise of the Explosives Inspectorate and the Fire Service Inspectorate is always available to licensing authorities which wish to seek advice on the licensing of petroleum installations. The Canvey Island Urban District Council was, I understand, guided by this advice to a very large extent in licensing the liquid methane installation.

The effect of this licensing control is to enable the authorities to require that appropriate standards of safety are provided for everyone on the installation and that all necessary precautions are taken to ensure that occupiers of neighbouring properties are not endangered. Among the conditions attached to the licence for the liquid methane installation are provisions designed to preclude any possible source of ignition within 50 feet of any place where liquid methane is kept and to secure all possible precautions to prevent accident by fire.

My hon. Friend has referred to certain accidents which have occurred at these oil installations. There was the case of the severe fire which destroyed the pumphouse at Reedham East on 9th June, when three employees were quite severely burned, and there was the accident at Coryton on 26th July, when a ship collided with the oil jetty. My hon. Friend described the effects of that.

This sort of risk, it is contended, could be increased on Canvey Island if the projected development of a new oil refinery on the island is allowed to proceed. But I should point out that these accidents, serious though they were, fortunately did not injure a member of the general public or surrounding property in any way. This reflects not only the efficiency of the Essex fire service but the efficiency of the licensing arrangements. I am very glad that my hon. Friend paid tribute both to the efficiency of the Essex fire service and to the fire service on the site. To this one must add the awareness of the oil companies of the risks which their installations present. Every fire of this kind which occurs is considered, not only by the companies but by the Government. We examine lessons which can be derived from it in improving safety measures for the future, both as regards equipment and practice. My hon. Friend can be assured that these two incidents will be fully considered in this context.

A preliminary inquiry has been instituted under the Merchant Shipping Acts into the Coryton incident about which my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, will be making a statement in due course. As to the Reedham East fire, investigations have been undertaken by both the company and the local petroleum officer. Although it is not for the Home Office to say what use might be made of the report of a private company on a fire at one of its own installations, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will see what can be done to ensure that fire research reports on the two incidents and the report from the petroleum officer of the Thurrock Urban District Council are made available, if required, to the petroleum officer of Canvey Island Urban District Council.

As to the existing installations on Canvey Island, although some 50 outbreaks of fire occurred at the methane installation between 1965, when it was brought into operation, and the end of 1969, all these fires were extinguished immediately by the plant personnel, who had been specially trained in fire-fighting. I think that this is a fair measure of the efficiency of the fire-fighting arrangements in that installation. It is only where, first, the preventive measures at such installations and, secondly, their own first-line firefighting arrangements fail to stop a fire that it is necessary to call upon the resources of the local authority fire services. It is for the fire authority to decide what is needed in the way of personnel and equipment to deal efficiently with any fire which is likely to occur in their area. Clearly a fire authority having major oil installations in its area would be particularly concerned to ensure that adequate fire cover was provided for them. The fire authorities have always received the fullest co-operation from the petroleum industry and I understand that they are satisfied with the standard of fire cover provided for Canvey Island. My right hon. Friend has no power to order an inquiry into the fire cover unless there is an accident.

Mr. Braine

My right hon. Friend may have no such power, but I am asking for an inspection by an appropriate officer of one installation to make sure that there are no undue risks in the light of the county clerk's admission that the present situation is unsatisfactory and will remain so until some time unspecified next year.

Mr. Sharples

My understanding is that the licensing authority has power to make an inspection of this kind, and any technical information or help required by that authority and which the Home Office was able to give would be made available.

The main question raised by my hon. Friend was that of the new refinery which is now being considered at the inquiry which opened today. It would be improper for me to say anything in this debate which might in any way prejudice that inquiry, although my hon. Friend is not inhibited in quite the same way. If there is concern as to the extent of the increased fire risk which would be presented by an additional oil installation in this area and the ability to provide adequate fire cover it would, of course, be right for these considerations to be brought forward at the inquiry. If planning permission for this development is given, it would still be for the Canvey Island Urban District Council to decide whether a licence for the new installation could properly be granted under the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928 and, if so, what conditions should be attached to it to ensure that the petroleum spirit is kept safely and that the risk presented to the general public is reduced to a minimum. Before reaching a decision, it would undoubtedly consult the fire authority, who would then need to consider whether the fire cover currently provided for Canvey Island required to be increased in any way and could be effectively reinforced in a case of emergency.

I hope that what I have said will be of some comfort to my hon. Friend. I should like again to say how much I have appreciated the way in which he has put his case and that I realise how much concern this matter is to his constituents on Canvey Island.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.