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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 February 2006, 16:25 GMT
Buncefield parallels drawn abroad
Firefighters tackling the blaze at the depot
The affected homes were very close to the burning depot
Disturbing parallels between the Buncefield fuel depot explosion and fires abroad have challenged the insistence of the UK onshore oil industry that the accident was a one-off.

Previous fires in the US and the Netherlands should have served as warnings about the layout of sites and proximity to homes and offices, international experts told the File On 4 programme.

The blast in Hertfordshire last December destroyed twenty giant fuel tanks.

Investigators from the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency are trying to find out what caused the fire, the biggest in post-war Europe.

Generally there was reckoned to be no risk whatsoever from a terminal in terms of major fire or incident. We've got to learn lessons from that
Chris Hunt, UKPIA
It blew out huge office blocks which would have held hundreds of workers, had the accident not happened at 0600 GMT on a Sunday.

More than 600 firefighters fought the inferno which lasted for three days.

At the time, the oil industry insisted its safety record was excellent.

Speaking to File On 4 this week, the Director General of the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA), Chris Hunt, said the blast was "absolutely unprecedented".

"Generally there was reckoned to be no risk whatsoever from a terminal in terms of major fire or incident. We've got to learn lessons from that."

'Eye-opener'

But File On 4 has learned of a huge fire with striking similarities at an oil terminal in Newark, New Jersey, in 1983.

It spread to several tanks after too much fuel was pumped into one of them. Then a giant vapour cloud formed and exploded.

Large or small fires are very credible scenarios in any depot...at any time
Professor Sam Mannan
"The 1983 New Jersey incident was an eye-opener and a wake-up call for the industry that led to changes in safety systems," said Professor Sam Mannan, head of a chemical engineering research centre at Texas A and M University.

The proximity between the tanks was a big factor in the fire spreading and investigators should be looking at the spacing in the Buncefield depot, he added.

"I think large or small fires are very credible scenarios in any depot and can occur any time so both design and prevention and emergency response mechanisms need to be in place and well thought out."

80-tank fire

Another huge fire in fuel storage tanks at Denver Stapleton airport in 1990 also showed similarities with Buncefield, with a number of tanks involved and burning that went on for days, beyond the control of fire crews.

And, in 1968, a fire at a Shell plant in Pernis, the Netherlands involved four times as many tanks as Buncefield. It damaged nearby residential properties and may have contained a warning for the whole onshore industry.

File On 4 heard from Dr Tony Cox, from the Health and Safety Commission's advisory committee on dangerous substances, who at the time was working in the Netherlands.

"The fire itself would have been beyond what the systems had been designed to cater for, so that would have been what led to the loss of the majority of 80 tanks.

"So it was basically a somewhat comparable incident [to Buncefield]."

Kevin Allars, head of the HSE's chemical industries division, conceded that he had not heard of the Dutch incident but was starting to look into comparisons with the one in New Jersey.

"We had a report commissioned several years ago of incidents that had happened and that one was not included in it.

"We're looking at it now to see if there should have been lessons learned."

When asked about fires that were comparable to Buncefield, Chris Hunt of UKPIA said: "We'll await the outcome of the incident to find what lessons were learnt and what the clear HSE recommendations are."


File On 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 14 February, 2005 at 2000 GMT and repeated on Sunday 19 February, 2005 at 1700 GMT.


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