Echoes of Buncefield as waste oil depot explodes

A major explosion and fire engulfed a waste oil recovery site owned by Eco-oil on the Isle of Grain in late March. The incident coincides with a report revealing that many fuel storage depots are failing to use best practice to prevent spills, despite the Buncefield disaster.

The explosion occurred on 30 March at Eco-oil’s site on the Kingsnorth Industrial Estate. A large storage tank containing 250 tonnes of oil exploded, apparently as a result of a worker using an angle grinder near the tank. The man was blown off an elevated platform by the blast, but escaped with only minor injuries.

At its height, 15 fire engines were needed to battle the blaze. Emergency services advised local people to stay indoors and keep windows closed after the fire sent a large cloud of toxic smoke over the area. Two similar tanks nearby were doused with water to prevent further explosions.

The Environment Agency said the main environmental threat came from a large potential spill of firewater contaminated with oil into the Medway estuary, a site of special scientific interest. Most of the firewater was held within the site containment system, but about 5 tonnes escaped, polluting a watercourse.

Fire-fighting foam used at the incident did not contain the toxic perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) surfactant used at Buncefield.

Eco-oil operates nine waste oil collection depots and reprocessing sites in the UK. The Kingsnorth site is regulated by the Agency under a waste management licence, but is too small to fall under the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regime.

The Health and Safety Executive has mounted an investigation into the explosion.

The incident serves as an important reminder of the risks of storing large quantities of oil and fuel following the massive explosion and fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot in December 2005. Firewater contaminated with oil and PFOS has polluted the groundwater (ENDS Report 386, p 25 ).

But many operators appear to be complacent, according to a survey of safety and environmental performance at 86 oil and fuel storage sites under COMAH conducted last year by the Agency and HSE.1The Agency found that 57 sites were operating "below good practice", with a further 19 sites having even more serious shortcomings. Most of the failures concerned inadequate spill containment, such as bunds not being large enough or not leak-tight.

A HSE safety review of 47 sites found six failed to meet good practice standards, particularly through inadequate maintenance and inspection. However, the report says that none were serious enough to warrant enforcement action.

The regulators have required all deficient sites in the survey to make improvements.

The importance of spill prevention is also emphasised in the latest report from the Buncefield Major Investigation Board.2The report makes several recommendations about the design and operation of fuel storage depots following the Board’s main findings published last year (ENDS Report 381, pp 20-21 ).