Shell UK Limited Fined for Wastewater Plant Explosion

The fine is equivalent to $1.6 million in U.S. dollars. The 2008 explosion caused no injuries.

A British judge has fined Shell UK Limited £1 million and added £242,000 in costs -- for a total sum equivalent to $1.6 million in U.S. dollars -- in connection with a February 2008 explosion and fire in the wastewater treatment plant at its Bacton gas terminal in Norfolk. Experts from the Health and Safety Executive said it was lucky no one was seriously injured. It happened around 6 p.m., when day shift workers were returning to offices to prepare for shift handovers, according to HSE.

The explosion blew the concrete roof off a buffering tank at the plant. HSE and the Environment Agency jointly prosecuted the firm over safety, environmental control, and pollution prevention failures that at the plant leading to the explosion. A corroded metal separator vessel failed, allowing water contaminated with a highly flammable condensate to enter a concrete storage tank, where it was heated by an electric heater. The heater's elements were exposed within the tank, raising the surface temperature significantly and causing the explosion and fire, according to HSE.

Bacton is operated by several energy companies and houses gas processing plants along with the Interconnector system feeding gas between Britain and Europe. Because large quantities of hazardous substances are on site, Shell Bacton is classified as a top tier site under the Control of Major Accident Hazard (COMAH) regulations.

More than 850 tonnes of fire water and firefighting foam flowed into the North Seat because Shell UK failed to close the sea gate until about an hour after the fire started. It also did not notify the Environment Agency as required, HSE said.

The company pleaded guilty to seven charges covering safety, environmental, and pollution prevention failures at the plant. HSE Inspector Steve Johnson said Shell UK "neglected basic maintenance leading up to the explosion. Our investigation found key components had been failing for some years and the company knew this, yet there had been no appreciation of the potential for an incident such as this. In particular, there had been no attempt to assess the risk that arose from condensate entering the water treatment plant, despite the fact that the plant was not designed to handle highly flammable liquids like condensate.

"The investigation revealed significant failings in the safety management system operating on the plant, and hopefully other operators will take note of the outcome of this incident and maybe review their own procedures."

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