HC Deb 02 July 1974 vol 876 cc212-5
Mr. Harry Ewing (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the explosion in the docks at Grangemouth.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

At about 9 o'clock on Sunday night, 30th June, an explosion and fire occurred on board the small motor vessel "Milli" which was discharging a cargo of mixed butylenes, which are liquefied petroleum gases, at the British Petroleum Company's tanker terminal in Grangemouth Docks. The fire and explosion occurred in the ship's pump room. The Norwegian master of the vessel, who, it is believed, had visited the pump room to investigate why the rate of pumping was slow, was killed.

The fire in the vessel, which is Danish owned and registered in Cyprus and built for the purpose of transporting liquefied petroleum gas, was extinguished in about an hour.

The windows of a mess room on the quayside were broken but there was no structural or fire damage to quayside buildings. The dock was temporarily closed but, I understand, is now reopened, although ships are being kept away from the berth where the tanker is tied up.

The district inspector of factories is carrying out an investigation into the occurrence and a senior specialist chemical inspector from headquarters with particular knowledge of liquefied petroleum gas problems has been flown to Scotland to assist him.

There is a "major incidents plan" for the Grangemouth complex which was prepared by the petrochemical companies in conjunction with the Factory Inspectorate, the fire brigade and the police.

This procedure was not implemented as the occurrence was not considered a major incident by the emergency services.

As hon. Members will know from my statement in the House on Thursday concerning the Flixborough inquiry, I have decided to set up an expert committee to begin work on hazards arising from modern chemical processes. The danger which might arise from incidents such as these in our docks with possible repercussions on petrochemical installations in the vicinity is a matter which the committee of experts will be considering.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has also instituted a statutory preliminary inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 into this incident.

Mr. Ewing

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very comprehensive statement on this serious incident. I also take this opportunity to express the sympathy of my constituents with the family of the Norwegian master of the vessel.

In the inquiry that is to take place, will the Department look for similarities between this explosion and the recent explosion of much more serious proportions at Flixborough? Will my right hon. Friend also call for a report on another recent incident in my constituuency, the fire which caused over £1 million-worth of damage at Scottish Tar Distillers in Falkirk? Running through all three incidents there appears to be a similar thread, in as much as the cause appears to be leakage. If that is established, will my right hon. Friend ask those responsible to put in hand work towards designing a much safer and more suitable coupling which could be used in connecting the hosepipes necessary to discharge such highly explosive and inflammable cargoes?

Will my right hon. Friend take those points on board in the inquiry?

Mr. Foot

I join my hon. Friend in expressing sympathy with the family of the Norwegian master of the vessel who was killed.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to suggest that there was any similarity between the incident and what occurred at Falkirk or Flixborough, without having the investigations carried out. We shall do everything we can on the expert committee to which I have referred and under the operations of the Health and Safety Commission, when it is established, to ensure that all the possibilities that my hon. Friend has raised are properly and speedily investigated.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate the Opposition side of the House with the expressions of sympathy with the family of the master of the vessel who lost his life.

I also pay tribute to the efficiency of the fire services in the Central Area Fire Brigade in Scotland for the speedy way in which they brought the fire under control. It is not only an area of Scotland which is well served by the fire services of the Central Area but one in which firms have shown particular awareness of the risks, and have their own industrial fire brigades. It is an area of high risk, with the chemical industry and so on. Were any of the industrial fire brigades in the area involved operationally, or were they alerted for action in the event of the fire becoming more serious?

Mr. Foot

As I said in my reply, there is a major incidents plan for dealing with such dangers, and it would have been used if the extent of the danger had been such that the plan required to be put into operation. However, it was the judgment of those on the spot that that was not necessary. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the fire was most speedily brought under control, and we are all grateful for that.

Mr. Grimond

On behalf of my colleagues, may I ask to be associated with the sympathy which has been expressed to the relatives of the master who so tragically lost his life?

Will the committee to which the Secretary of State referred, which was set up last week, examine only the danger of chemical and oil-based chemical explosions and fires, or will it take into account the general dangers of oil, oil-related industries and gas, particularly in areas in which there are not very sophisticated fire brigades?

Mr. Foot

It will take account of major hazards—certainly the matters that the right hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. John Ellis

If anything significant turns up that might be useful for the Flixborough inquiry, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the inspectors report it to that inquiry? I note that the ship was registered in Cyprus. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the National Union of Seamen has been saying for a considerable time that conditions are far from the best on board such ships? It is usually the Department of Trade that looks into this matter. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Factory Inspectorate has the right to go on board such ships, not only after an explosion but without waiting for an explosion?

Mr. Foot

If any information relevant to the other inquiry comes out of this inquiry, we shall certainly pass it on, although I am doubtful whether that would be the case. It is impossible to judge at present.

My hon. Friend's second question is a most important aspect of the matter, which is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. We are not satisfied with the regulations governing not the docks in this country but ships that come to them. The British Government have for a long time been seeking an ILO convention which would cover the matter more successfully. We are still striving to get it, and shall strive all the more strongly as a result of the incident, which has had a parallel in some other incidents of which my hon. Friend is well aware.