Shell UK has been ordered to pay £1.2 million after an explosion at a UK gas terminal in 2008.
The blast in February 2008 at Bacton gas terminal, Norfolk, could have killed 10 people, according to prosecutor Andrew Marshall. The only reason there were no fatalities was because staff were changing shifts at the time, he added.
The impact was such that staff elsewhere on the site believed there had been an earthquake.
Judge Martin Binning heard that Shell managers had been given many warnings from workers about high levels of North Sea Condensate, a highly-flammable hydro-carbon.
Shell UK previously admitted seven breaches of health and safety and environmental regulations following the explosion and subsequent fire. These included not taking sufficient steps to protect staff and the public.
Marshall said: “Management were sleepwalking into danger, no matter what was brought to their attention. What is not in doubt is that what took place could have been fatal for those in the vicinity of this lethal blast.”
“The Crown estimates that 10 people could have been killed and that is not taking into account the injuries, serious injuries and further issues that can follow from such a situation.”
He added: “Plant personnel were swapping for the late shift and were out of the way. So it is only by good fortune that nobody was killed or hurt or that worse damage was suffered.”
Corrosion in a water separation vessel used to cool plant systems meant the chemical balance reached an unsafe level. Basic errors, including temperature gauges being wrongly placed, were discovered by inspectors.
An estimated 850 tonnes of fire water, fire fighting foam and North Sea Condensate went into the sea after the explosion because of a faulty sea wall gate that the Environment Agency had originally advised was not satisfactory in 2004. It did not however cause long-term environmental damage.
Toby Riley-Smith, in mitigation, told the court the board of directors and senior management had asked him to issue a public apology. He added: “The company is committed to protecting the health and safety of its workers and conducts its business in an environmentally responsible way. It is therefore a matter of particular regret and shame that the company finds itself in court.”
Passing sentence at Ipswich Crown Court today, Judge Binning ordered the company to pay a fine of £1 million and legal costs of £242,000. He said the figure reflected the alarm the incident caused to the public.
Judge Binning said there had been flaws in plant systems for many years and there had been at least one near-miss in the past. When concerns were examined this was “not looked at from a safety point of view but from a production point of view”.
By mid-2007 it was clear there was something seriously wrong with a key piece of plant machinery, he added.
Judge Binning said: “This was an escalating situation which had not been addressed through maintenance or risk assessment over a period of time.
“That it was a large explosion was illustrated by the fact it blew off the insulated top of a tank and sent a shockwave through a blast protected office a quarter of a mile away.
“Nobody from Shell contacted the Environment Agency immediately as they are obliged to do so, meaning that agency did not have the opportunity to offer advice to limit the consequences.”
But he added: “Managers have expressed regret and, though it does not have an unblemished safety record, Shell’s record is better than the average in the industry.
“That said there was a degree of good fortune in that staff were changing shifts in what was a relatively small time window and, had this not been the case, great damage could have occurred.
“Fortunately neither death nor great damage did occur.”
The explosion happened on February 28 at about 5.42pm. The blast shook neighbouring villages and a plume of smoke could be seen for miles around.
The Bacton plant is one of the three gas plants which feed the national grid, accounting for around one-third of the country’s gas. There had been fears that the explosion would lead to a national energy crisis.
Representatives of Shell refused to answer questions outside court. But the company said in a statement: “What happened was completely unacceptable and falls well below the standards that we set for ourselves. Safety is our company's priority and so an incident like this is deeply disappointing.
“We have admitted our fault, accepted the penalty, and learned the lessons. As a direct result of the investigations into the incident a significant number of improvements have been made.”