Written Ministerial statement - 13 November 2008
The Buncefield Investigation: The Government and Competent Authority’s response
Lord McKenzie of Luton:
In the early hours of Sunday 11 December 2005, a number of explosions occurred at Buncefield Oil Storage Depot, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. At least one of the initial explosions was of massive proportions and there was a large fire, which engulfed a significant proportion of the site. More than 40 people were injured, although fortunately there were no fatalities. Damage occurred to both commercial and residential properties in the vicinity and a large area around the site was evacuated on emergency service advice. The fire burned for several days, destroying most of the site and emitting large clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere. The damage to the site and the escape of the stored fuel, plus large quantities of fire-fighting materials, resulted in contamination of the groundwater in the vicinity of the site by fuel, fuel-related contaminants and surfactants needed to control the fire.
Following the explosion, a Major Incident Investigation Board (MIIB), independently chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, was established and has overseen an extensive investigation into the causes of the accident and ways to avoid or mitigate against similar incidents in the future. The MIIB has now published eight reports, four of which were progress reports, with the other four setting out findings and making recommendations concerning the ‘Design and operation of fuel storage sites’, ‘Emergency preparedness for, response to and recovery from incidents’, ‘The explosion mechanism advisory group report’and ‘Land use planning and the control of societal risk around major hazard sites’. The recommendations are aimed mainly at site operators and the COMAH Competent Authority but there are also recommendations for various Government Departments to consider arising out of the findings and recommendations on emergency preparedness and land use planning.
I am pleased to announce to the House that I have today placed in its libraries a report detailing the Government’s and the Competent Authority’s response to the MIIB reports ‘Design and operation of fuel storage sites’, and ‘Emergency preparedness for, response to and recovery from incidents’.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lord Newton and his Board for their very thorough reports, which will lead to improved safety, environmental protection and resilience at and around major-hazard sites.
Overall, I can report that good progress has been made against the recommendations. With regard to the MIIB report on ‘Design and operation of fuel storage sites’, both the Competent Authority (comprising the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Environment Agency and Scottish Environment Protection Agency) and industry have acted promptly on the implementation of the recommendations, and this work has delivered real improvements in the prevention of major incidents.
On the second MIIB report covering ‘Emergency preparedness for, response to and recovery from incidents’, Government organisations, notably the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) and the Cabinet Office, have responded to the challenge with a programme of action. As announced in the National Security Strategy, published in March 2008, the Cabinet Office has embarked in 2008 on a review of Part 1 of the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) 2004. Delivered through the CCA Enhancement Programme, the review will ensure that the CCA continues to provide a modern, consistent and effective platform for civil protection in the UK. The review will directly address relevant recommendations highlighted in the second MIIB report.
The devolved administrations have also been fully engaged. This is coupled with positive work at a local level to enhance the resilience and effectiveness of emergency response, supported by new guidance from Government. I am pleased to see these improvements, and we are already better prepared for any future emergencies at major-hazard sites.
I would also like to take this opportunity to update the House on recovery and regeneration in the Buncefield area, which I am pleased to say is progressing well, with substantial financial assistance from central Government and the East of England Development Agency (EEDA). In conjunction with the local authority and key local stakeholders, EEDA is also developing innovative proposals to combine a series of significant funding programmes to help finance major infrastructure improvements identified in the local masterplan as key to driving growth in the area. In terms of recovery, 22 million litres of contaminated firewater stored at Maple Lodge and Blackbirds sewage treatment works has been treated and disposed of safely. The remaining firewater was safely disposed of by high-temperature incineration earlier this year. A parcel of land adjacent to the Buncefield site is in the process of being sold and developers were invited to submit proposals to EEDA by September.
With respect to regeneration, based on Dacorum Borough Council’s programme of development, CLG has made a provisional award under the Housing Growth Areas scheme for 2008–9 of £2.71 million and an indicative provisional award of £3.814 million for the period 2009–2011. The East of England Development Agency has also provided £4.5 million to date – some £2 million pre-incident – and has pledged a further £2 million of any public gap-funding required to enable Phase One of the Maylands Gateway Masterplan to proceed. This includes funding for a Maylands Partnership and Recovery Director as a focal point for recovery and regeneration activity and around £1.8 million of funding for a business support centre. Industry has also contributed a substantial sum to the restoration of business activities and regeneration in the local area.
EEDA is working closely with Dacorum Borough Council and local stakeholders, developing proposals to designate the area as a ’New Town Improvement District’. If agreed, following a vote by local business, this will create a substantial funding stream beginning as early as April 2009, directly controlled by local businesses, to further fund local infrastructure investment.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will lead Government consideration of the most recent MIIB report, Recommendations on land use planning and the control of societal risk around major hazard sites, which was published on 15 July this year. CLG will respond substantively on behalf of the Government in due course.
Meanwhile, CLG officials have met members of the MIIB to discuss the Board’s recommendations. In developing the Secretary of State’s response, CLG will work closely with both the HSE and the devolved administrations. It intends also to convene a stakeholders’ group, comprising representatives from Government, regulators and industry, with whom to consult as the work proceeds.
The regulatory regime for controlling the citing of major hazard facilities and development around them is complex, involving a number of legislative instruments.
CLG intends to commission a study to set out and explain the operation of the legislation controlling the planning application and hazardous substances consent processes, and to consider the scope for rationalisation and possible integration of these regimes. The study will also investigate the extent to which local planning authorities with active consents have relevant policies in their development plans.
To summarise, I can report to the House that in response to a series of very useful reports from the MIIB, the Government, the Competent Authority, industry – through the Buncefield Standards Task Group – and others subject to the recommendations have responded promptly. They have set in train a programme of work that will ensure real improvements in the prevention of major incidents and, should major incidents occur, that effective plans are in place to respond and recover in the best way possible.