Britain eyes oil-storage safety

Major blast causes less damage than initially feared in central England.

The noise was phenomenal and the destruction was enormous. But while Sunday's oil-depot explosion in central England - described as the biggest in peacetime Europe - rattled oil markets and raised questions about safety, it may have less long-term impact than originally thought.

The shock from the blast withered nearby buildings, shattered windows, and woke Britons dozens of miles away. The conflagration at the site, which stores millions of gallons of fuel, was largely contained after two and a half days. And the 70-mile column of smoke was clearly visible on satellite pictures of Britain.

Still, no one was killed, and only two serious injuries were reported. The sooty discharge, sucked high into the atmosphere by unusual weather conditions, has yet to impact the environment. And fuel supplies have appeared remarkably untroubled given that the depot is the fifth largest in Britain and provides jet fuel for Heathrow Airport as well as gas for drivers.

"The biggest miracle about this whole disaster is that there weren't any fatalities," says Mike Penning, member of Parliament for Hemel Hemstead, the town nearest the Buncefield site. "The biggest impact really is on the commercial sector. The whole of my industrial estate is down. We've got hundreds of factories damaged."

Workers may be idle for now, he noted. "But at least they're alive." By contrast, 167 people died in a 1988 North Sea oil rig fire, Britain's last major oil installation disaster.

Firefighters said Tuesday that only minor fires remained. But questions about the causes and consequences of the disaster looked set to rage for weeks to come. Officials estimate that the blaze caused about $100 million in damage.

Investigators believe industrial accident is the most likely explanation. Mr. Penning, a former firefighter, said he had spoken to people on the site who support this theory. A full investigation involving more than 50 police officers and health and safety officials is under way. Safety experts are reassembling a fuel tank to see how and why it exploded. Video from closed-circuit TV could shed light on how a site that has operated for 36 years could suddenly ignite.

Given recent terrorist attacks in London, theories have emerged of foul play. An Al Qaeda tape surfaced days earlier calling for attacks on the usurpers of "Muslim oil." Rumors have circulated about a light aircraft in the area before the explosion.

"There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there was a light aircraft in the area or that one was involved in any way," says police spokeswoman Linda Anderson. Peter Burrows of Total UK, which operates the site, said security was tight, with pass-access, a perimeter fence, and few office- based staff. "It's not as easy to get in as people think," he says.

The timing - dawn on a sleepy Sunday - would also argue against terror links.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the safety of maintaining vast, flammable storage facilities close to residential areas. Some houses sit as close as a half-mile to Buncefield, and 2,000 people have been evacuated.

Penning says the depot was built in the 1960s and that expansion of housing since has gradually brought homes closer and closer.

"In the 21st century, it's not a safe place for an industrial estate to be," he says. "But now it's been demolished, and I want a full public inquiry into the position of these depots."

Local authorities closed some 200 schools, and resi- dents were ordered to stay indoors. The concern is that a change in weather could bring the smog closer to earth. "Should the weather conditions change or the smoke become less buoyant, then we would expect a greater chance of seeing some of the pollution at ground level," says Jon Bower of the National Environmental Technology Centre.

Meteorological expert Clare Lee, who flew through the smoke cloud Monday, said it contained "nothing more nasty than you'd get from a regular bonfire."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.