HC Deb 27 November 1978 vol 959 cc179-90

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

On 1st June 1974 an explosion of great magnitude occurred at Flixborough, in my constituency. It killed 28 people and did substantial damage in villages surrounding the factory. This raised issues about the safety of chemical plants which reverberated round the world.

There was a public inquiry. All the facts were investigated. Arising from that and the recommendations, the company, Nypro (UK) Ltd., instituted a poll in the villages on the advisability of reopening the plant. The company said that the new plant would be the safest plant that 'it was possible for man to originate, devise or plan. No qualifications were attached to that statement. It was to be the safest plant possible for man to build. Because of that, and certain planning proposals, I wish to raise the matter of rebuilding the plant.

I heard by way of rumour that the company was seeking a section 8 grant to put railway sidings or to update facilities so that chemicals might be dealt with and to bring in phenol. The company told me that discussions had been held with two major phenol suppliers—Shell and ICI—together with British Rail with a view to applying to the Minister for a section 8 grant. The company said that it would keep me informed about the preliminary discussions that were held at the first meeting. The company made it clear that it expected to get the whole of the 50 per cent. grant since what it was proposing was not an economic proposition and it would cost it more to get the phenol by rail than by road.

After the first meeting the company wrote to me again. I should make it clear that section 8 grants are concerned only with bulk. When a Minister takes a decision under that section his aim is to get bulk traffic off the road and on to the railways, so no safety considerations enter into the matter. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take note of that deficiency in the legislation. In determining section 8 grants, safety aspects as well as the amounts of freight involved in the move from road to rail should be considered.

The company reckoned that it would cost between £1.6 million and £1.8 million. The company's managing director wrote to me about the building of the A18—M180 roundabout to Neap Corner motorway extension. He said: I find it interesting that the last costing that was made for stage one of the north-west orbital road indicated that it would cost £750,000 to £800,000 which equates almost exactly with the level of grant that would have been necessary had the movement of phenol by rail proceeded. As the major environmental problem is the final road access to the Nypro plant then money spent on alleviating this could be more cost effective to the region and reduce the incidence of lorry nuisance by a greater amount than the Nypro scheme would have done. I telephoned the managing director, saying that I was prepared to put his case to the Minister. I offered my best offices, but the company replied that it was not interested in appealing to the Minister at that time. The Minister also made it clear to me that he was willing to consider giving the company a grant smaller than 50 per cent. The company made it equally clear that it was not interested at that stage in pursuing that application.

Here, then, was the first major change from the pledge that was given about the plant being the safest possible. It was proposed that the phenol would not now be delivered by rail. But that change paled into insignificance compared with the next development. It arose from the fact that Nypro used as feedstock for the manufacture of caprolactam natural gas delivered by pipeline. Then came the bombshell. The company announced that its contract, under which it bought the gas at 3.23p per therm, was subject to negotiation. The company stated: In practice we are being asked to pay 13.5p/therm for interruptible supplies and 17.5p/therm for firm supplies. The case that the company made was that if it was to have to meet these charges the plant could not be profitable in the foreseeable future. It therefore submitted a planning application to the Glanford borough council seeking permission to store butane, and to bring it in by road tanker. That happened just after the road tanker explosion in Spain, and my constituents, not least those who had worked at the plant, were most concerned. The workers there, who had seen 28 of their comrades die, want the plant to be built, but they want the safest plant possible. The Scunthorpe borough council protested at the news. The trades council made similar representations. The planning application then went forward.

Negotiations were and still are going on between Nypro and British Gas. I wrote to Sir Denis Rooke, who replied to me: It is not our understanding that the plant could not be viable at the up-to-date price for natural gas. If it could be shown that safer procedures could be adopted but that the profit margins would not allow that to happen, I should be prepared to ask the Secretary of State whether aid could be afforded to the operation. However, the company has never given me those details. It is felt in my constituency that the company made the planning application to strengthen its arm in negotiation with British Gas.

It is true that the boom days for the product of caprolactam in the making of nylon are not as good as they were in profit terms. But that matter is still to be decided. If I am given the facts and figures, I am still willing to take a deputation to see the Secretary of State for Energy.

The main point I wish to make is that firms should pay for their own safety in the first instance. The pledge that was given was that the plant would be the safest man could devise. On that basis the company went forward with its planning application to Glanford borough council. I thought that the council would kick out that application on the grounds that it was premature because negotiations between British Gas and Nypro were still continuing.

An additional ground revealed at the meeting was that the recommendation that was required had not been given by the Health and Safety Executive. I hope that the Minister will refer to that matter. I made inquiries into this major matter. Those concerned were determined to do a specific job, but they were not in a position to supply that information.

To my surprise, the Glanford borough council passed the planning application, but entered a remarkable caveat. It said that the application was subject to any recommendation it might receive from the Health and Safety Executive. One cannot prejudge what the Executive will say to the council. However, it was a remarkable decision which will affect not only this case but many others.

What is the position in respect of the Executive? If the Minister cannot tell me this evening, I hope that he will write to me. I have written to the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, Mr. Bill Simpson, on this topic, and, although he replied to say that he did not place the same emphasis as I do on the safety element in natural gas compared with butane in road tankers. I in turn replied that natural gas was preferable. I await his reply.

What happens if Mr. Simpson recommends anything else? I have received a petition from residents in the area which reads: We request you to investigate the way planning permission has been given by the Glanford borough council to Nypro (U.K.) Ltd. for the storage of 1,200 tonnes of butane gas. In view of the inherent risk, and since there are safer fuels available that are commercially viable, we ask that this permission be revoked. What is the situation in respect of Glanford borough council? I believe that it has given its decision. There is no appeal from the decision, even to the Secretary of State for the Environment. A total of 600 of my constituents want something to be done. We are awaiting the recommendation of the Health and Safety Executive.

Pledges were given to my constituents that this would be the safest plant that could be humanly devised, but that concept is now being ignored.

I believe that my constituents have every right to be concerned about the storage of butane gas in bulk. This will also affect a village near my constituency called Amcotts, and I am concerned about its inhabitants as well as my own constituents. A major explosion has happened in the past, and they are very much concerned about the future.

I shall do everything I can in this House to set aside this decision. I hope that many outside the House will hear my plea and that it will be possible, even at this stage, for Nypro to reach an accommodation with British Gas.

I think that it is a criticism of Glanford borough council that it has handled the matter as it has. I look to my hon. Friend for help in ensuring that we do not make use of butane storage and movement by road tankers. I believe that we ought to have the stage I orbital road, but even if that is built—which is a matter for the county council anyway, and we hope to see it done—it will remain vital that we make the plant as safe as possible. I believe and hope that that could and should be achieved by transporting natural gas by pipeline rather than by storing large amounts of butane and moving it by road tankers to the plant.

10.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Grant)

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) has drawn attention to a number of extremely important problems, and I can fully understand the concern which he has expressed on behalf of his constituents. I assure him at the outset that that concern is shared by the Health and Safety Commission, and I hope to show that the Commission is fully alive to these problems and is giving them considerable attention. I ought to add that, as my hon. Friend knows, some of the topics which he has raised bear on responsibilities of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport.

It is essential to stress first of all that the chemical process to be used by Nypro (U.K.) Limited at Flixborough is quite different from that which was being carried on when the tragic explosion occurred on 1st June 1974. The new plant is to be used to make caprolactam, the basic material used for the production of nylon fibres and certain engineering products, by the hydrogenation of phenol instead of by the oxidation of cyclohexane which was the process in operation when the disaster occurred.

Before the new plant was built, the planning authority sought the views of the Health and Safety Executive on the planning application and it was advised that the basic features of the plant were orthodox and no reasons could be found to expect a serious failure of containment such as occurred on 1st June 1974 that the plant did not have the potential for producing a vapour cloud of the same order of magnitude as that of June 1974 and that if, notwithstanding all the precautions to be taken either during the construction of the plant to satisfactory standards or its subsequent operation and maintenance to the highest standards, there should occur a serious leakage of chemical liquid or of gas leading to a fire or explosion, then on the basis of experience it was considered that serious effects would be confined to the section of the plant where failure occurred. The conclusion of the Health and Safety Executive was that, on grounds of health and safety, there were no reasons why the planning authority should object to the proposals.

Then the Secretary of State for the Environment directed that the application be referred to him for decision, and a local public inquiry was held. At the inquiry the safety aspects of the development were fully debated. The inspector who conducted the inquiry recommended that the application be approved, subject to appropriate conditions, and the Secretary of State accepted this recommendation.

Construction of the plant was then begun. During all stages of construction, inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive have maintained a close watch on developments. Frequent inspections of the site have been carried out, including visits by specialist inspectors with particular knowledge of the processes involved. I understand that the local factory inspector considers that the plant has been monitored over the past four years to a depth that has never previously been undertaken by the factory inspectorate. These visits will, of course, continue when the plant becomes operational as part of the normal enforcement programme carried out by the Health and Safety Executive in accordance with the terms of the Health and Safety at Work etc., Act 1974. That Act, as the House knows, requires every employer to ensure the safety not only of his own employees but of all other people who may be affected by his undertaking.

My hon. Friend has referred to the use of road transport for delivering phenol to the plant and to the consideration given by Nypro, and its suppliers, Shell Chemicals and ICI, to the use of rail for this purpose. That would have involved very heavy capital expenditure on rail facilities, and this was the subject of an application—my hon. Friend referred to this also —by the three firms made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for a grant under section 8 of the Railways Act 1974. My hon. friend has been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Transport about this case, and he understands, I know, the reasons why the Department operating, as it must, the well established criteria for payment of this grant, was able to offer a contribution of £200,000 towards the capital cost of rail facilities. That offer reflected the judgment of the Department of Transport of the environ- mental benefits to be obtained by avoiding the road tanker traffic—estimated at 12 loaded road tankers a day—needed to supply phenol to the Flixborough plant. My hon. Friend will not expect me now to go into the full arguments surrounding the section 8 grant application.

As my hon. Friend has already explained, earlier this year Nypro announced that it was giving serious consideration to the use of butane, a form of liquefied petroleum gas, in place of natural gas as feedstock for the production of hydrogen; this is subsequently used in the process to synthesise caprolactam. This arises because the existing contract for the supply of natural gas to the Flixborough plant ends in 1979 though I understand that constructive negotiations between Nypro and the British Gas Corporation are continuing. The terms offered by British Gas Corporation for the continued supply of natural gas are such that the company has been considering plans for the use of butane instead.

Nypro's proposals would mean the transport of butane by road tankers instead of natural gas being conveyed to the site by pipeline. In his speech tonight and on a number of previous occasions my hon. Friend has drawn attention to the safety implications of the change. The relative risks involved are by no means clearcut. There have been accidents involving natural gas pipelines. The energy available from the pressure at which gas is conveyed in a pipeline as well as from ignition of any significant escape can be very large. On the other hand, serious consequences can arise if the contents of a road tanker escape and are ignited.

In neither activity can a guarantee of absolute safety be given. At the same time, if proper forethought in planning and care in operation are taken, the risks in both methods of conveyance can be minimised, and the record in this country shows that actual injury and damage by either method has been small. It will be the responsibility of Nypro and its suppliers to ensure that whatever choice they make the requirements in the Health and Safety at Work etc., Act 1974 are met.

My hon. Friend has said that he has been in touch with the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission to intervene to influence their choice. However, the Health and Safety Executive's concern is to ensure that whatever the ultimate choice adequate precautions appropriate to the risk are taken. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission has therefore asked the Health and Safety Executive to draw Nypro's attention to the need for ensuring adequate precautions for its installation and that those responsible for undertaking the conveyance of dangerous substances to the site are fully aware of their safety responsibilities in that operation, and to take that into account in making their decision on the choice of feedstock.

The Government understand the public concern with the possible dangers arising from any accidents involving the road transport of flammable gases such as butane. People living near Flixborough —for example, in the village of Gunness —or on the outskirts of Scunthorpe are only too conscious of the numbers of heavy lorries, including tankers, using what are clearly substandard roads to get access to the Flixborough plant. We recognise that the risk of traffic accidents, and their possible consequences if one of the vehicles were carrying a dangerous chemical, is considerably greater than it would be if a modern road could be provided.

The responsibility for local roads lies with the Humberside county council. The Department of Transport fully recognises the strong reasons of both safety and environment for making the necessary resources available through transport supplementary grant to finance a road scheme to improve access to Flixborough in the way that the council has in mind.

Apart from the transport implications, the changeover would mean significant alterations to the plant itself. It would be necessary to instal a road tanker unloading point and facilities for the bulk storage of butane. Butane would be stored in three horizontal tanks of 400 tonnes capacity each. Planning approval for the provision of these facilities is needed and Nypro has submitted a planning application to Glanford borough council. The council has, as in the case of the rebuilding of Flixborough, sought the views of the Health and Safety Executive and its specialist inspectors are studying the proposal.

I am surprised at the course of events relating to the council's decision to grant planning permission without waiting for the Health and Safety Executive's advice. I understand that this is unusual but I do not think that my hon. Friend will expect me to comment further tonight. Nor would it be right for me to speculate as to the company's motives in putting in a planning application at this stage of its negotiations with the British Gas Corporation. However, I make no apology for the time being taken by the Health and Safety Executive to examine these plans, because as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, it is not an easy matter to determine, and it is right that the Health and Safety Executive should consider these proposals very carefully—indeed, stringently—before deciding on the view that it should take.

Mr. John Ellis

It will be a very interesting situation should the Health and Safety Executive come down, as I believe that it must—and I have asked a direct question—to the view that for safety reasons it might be unsafe to store such large amounts, or, alternatively, if it follows my view that, in safety considerations, the safest method, after considering all the pros and cons, is natural gas by pipeline. What will happen in regard to the planning decision then?

Mr. Grant

That is a very interesting point. I said just now that it is a very unusual situation. Because it is so unusual, I shall not seek to answer my hon. Friend's question now. This is something that we shall look into. I shall certainly come back to my hon. Friend on that point, because clearly it is important. However, I am assured that the Health and Safety Executive is likely to provide the planning authority with an appraisal in the very near future.

I think that it will already be clear from what I have said that the Health and Safety Executive is closely involved in all aspects of activities at the Flixborough plant. As my hon. Friend has, at least by implication, touched on a number of matters of general application concerning safety, I want to make a brief comment about the Health and Safety Commission's proposals for future controls in this area.

The Commission has announced its intention of putting forward proposals for regulations based on the recommendations of the advisory committee on major hazards. A consultative document containing its proposals for Hazardous Installations (Notification and Survey) Regulations was published earlier this year for comment by interested parties. The proposed regulations would require occupiers of installations where specified substances are being kept, manufactured, processed or used, to notify the Health and Safety Executive of their activities; and, where these activities are being carried out on a sufficient scale, to carry out a hazard survey and to report the results to the Health and Safety Executive.

Among the substances listed in a schedule to the regulations which sets out the criteria for deciding whether an activity is within the scope of the regulations is liquefied petroleum gas, and the quantity for which a survey is required is 300 tonnes. So if these regulations are in due course adopted they would apply to the activity which is the subject of the Nypro planning application, and the firm would have to carry out a hazard survey of its activity and report the results to the Health and Safety Executive.

If when the Health and Safety Executive has studied the hazard survey report it considers it appropriate to do so, it would be able to call for more information in the shape of a detailed assessment, and the matters on any of which a detailed assessment may be called for are set out in another schedule to the proposed regulations. In the light of the information supplied in the hazard survey and the detailed assessment, if one is called for, the Health and Safety Executive would then consider what additional enforcement action, if any, should be taken at the installation in question.

I think that this serves to demonstrate how the Health and Safety Commission is tackling the problem of potentially hazardous industrial sites. I can assure my hon. Friend that it will at all times have full regard for the safety of both the employees at the plant and the people living round about, and I shall ensure that the concern which he has quite properly expressed tonight is brought to the attention of the Health and Safety Commission.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.