The swirl, thick with the stench of sulphur, engulfs hair and clothing in a gritty film. As if on cue, the earth heaves an allergic shudder, then lapses into deep- throated rumbling. A mechanical noise whines incessantly in the background. Mr Prynne wipes a layer of ash from a nearby car. 'Look, it's burning the paintwork. For all we know it could be toxic and we're inhaling it. They use the most dreadful acids up there . . . it's itching my face now.'
Peter Prynne, 61, is standing outside his pub, the Crowther Inn, in the middle of a small Welsh village called Rhoscrowther. The village lies in the crook of a lush Pembrokeshire valley. It was once a rural idyll, before the Texaco oil refinery came on stream in 1964.
The refinery - officially designated a 'major hazardous installation' - looms above the village, less than 500 metres from the village centre. It processes crude oil 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Built on 550 acres, it is the second biggest refinery in the UK and Texaco's largest in Europe.
For 27 years, the inhabitants of Rhoscrowther tolerated the smells, noise and fallout from the refinery. Unpleasantness of this evening's variety were borne with minimum fuss. But on 9 January this year, all that changed.
Mr Prynne's wife, Suzanne, 38, recounts the events of that evening: 'At around 6.30pm, I was lying on my bed watching telly when there was this rumbling, much louder than usual, and then suddenly there was this great wwooom, this huge explosion, like a seismic testing outside our window. The bed jumped, the telly jumped, the curtain sucked into the window and I jumped straight off the bed. We had guests in the caravan park and I rushed out and took them to the cellar. Then I phoned Texaco. It was absolute pandemonium there. They didn't know what had exploded but they advised us to stay indoors in case of a poisonous gas escape.'
Some villagers gathered up their children, jumped in their cars and sped to safety. By the time the all-clear sounded late that night and the 11 fire engines and five ambulances had departed, two Texaco workmen had been rushed to a burns unit and 16 others had been injured. In the village, no one was hurt and no property was damaged. But the psyche of the villagers had altered irrevocably - they no longer believed Texaco's assurances that they were safe. (A similar explosion had occurred in 1970, before most of the present residents arrived.)
Within days, 80 of the 101 villagers had signed a petition and presented it to the South Pembrokeshire District Council demanding to be relocated. The campaign was led by Peter Prynne. He lobbied their Euro MP, their local MP, the Secretary of State for Wales and the government Health and Safety Executive, and hired a solicitor. Texaco resisted. But in July, after persistent pressure, they sent letters offering - 'in the spirit of being a good neighbour' - to buy the entire village.
The terms seemed generous - Texaco would buy the 14 private properties at market value, to be calculated 'as if the refinery did not exist'. For the 19 council tenant families, Texaco would arrange similar accommodation of their own choosing. Those villagers that so preferred, could stay.
The deal appeared to satisfy everyone. But when the actual cash offers followed, they undercut the villagers' own professionally sought valuations by up to 50 per cent. Some, desperate to move (or thinking the offer fair) have accepted. Others, including Mr Prynne, have not. For them, the battle with Texaco continues.
In the meantime, stress in the village has soared - even children have been prescribed tranquillisers. More subtly, the sense of community has begun to disintegrate. The villagers have begun to define themselves as 'stayers', 'fighters' or 'leavers' (some even say 'sell-outs').
The morning after I witnessed the latest fallout, the telephone in the Crowther Inn does not stop ringing. 'The most worrying thing,' says Mr Prynne into the receiver, 'is that we don't know what the rotten stuff is.'
He comes off the telephone in irascible mood. 'Why should we live under a cloud of such worry? There are women who can no longer sleep without sleeping pills. My own wife is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And these pollutants aren't even the things we're protesting about. The thrust of our campaign is that it's physically dangerous to be here.'
To prove the point, Peter Prynne spreads a well-thumbed map of the refinery over the table. 'The January explosion took place here,' he says, pointing to a block marked 'cat cracker'. (The catalytic cracker is the unit where large crude oil molecules are 'cracked' down, by means of aluminium and silicon catalysts, to make petrol.) 'They could have built the goddamn thing anywhere but they've gone and put the most dangerous parts of the plant right on top of the village. It's not the worry about having our heads blown off - given the topography, a blast would go right over the village - but the threat of poisonous fallout that gets us.
'For instance, there are 300 tons of hydrogen fluoride kept in a vessel about 500 yards from where I'm sitting. If that were to explode, the hydrogen fluoride, which is heavier than air, would fall on the village in large blobs. If one blob landed on my skin, it would burn a hole straight through the flesh into my bones. And that's not the worst - if I were to breathe it, it would simply kill me.'
Ironically, Mr Prynne's promotional leaflet advertises his inn as being 'close to the refinery'. He used to get lunchtime trade from its staff but no longer. Financially, at least, he has more to lose than the other villagers. Not only is his eight-bedroom property the largest in the village, but the Crowther Inn is his livelihood as well as his home.
'We simply want enough money to replace what we have with something similar elsewhere. But it's not just about money - it's about our fundamental right to live in a decent environment.'
Not everyone shares Mr Prynne's sentiments. Of the 33 families, eight are adamant that they do not want to leave. 'It's the older element,' he explains. 'At their time in life, moving is so daunting, they'd rather die.'
Out in the village, the morning air reeks of gas. An elderly lady, dishcloth in hand, peers out of her window. 'I can't talk, my husband won't allow it,' she says, but carries on anyway. 'That little bang in January was nothing compared to the one 22 years ago. I didn't sign any petition. I won't move. Definitely not.'
Is that because, as some suggest, she's too old? 'Oooh]' she says indignantly, 'I could sell up tomorrow if I wanted. We're happy here. Very happy.'
She goes to check the buns baking in the oven, then reappears. 'You know who's the ringleader don't you? The little bang was nothing, but it was enough for him to use. And I'm not the only one who's saying it. I was here before Texaco and I'm not complaining. He's been here six years and now he's breaking up the village.'
Those that stay face the prospect of living in a ghost town in the middle of an ever-expanding refinery. Some couples, such as the pensioners Margaret and William James, are divided over whether to go or stay. Mr and Mrs James have lived here since 1947 and claim to be the first inhabitants of Rhoscrowther. Mrs James's concern is for her two sons, both in their fifties and sufferers from schizophrenia. 'I'd worry about them all the time if we lived in a town,' she says. 'Here they know everyone and they're protected and tolerated and that's important to me. That's why we're staying.'
Mr James, who had nodded off in front of the fire, now stirs. 'I don't want to stay,' he says deliberately. 'With everyone moving, there'll be nothing left. No amenities, no people, no pub for our boys to go to. Just Texaco.'
In some families, fear of the refinery has become so acute that staying or fighting for a better deal are no longer options. Martin and Donna Branch live in a council house less than 200 yards from the refinery fence. Soon after they moved in two years ago, their daughter Scarlett, then four years old, began to have nightmares. Every night for 12 months, she would wake up screaming - always the same nightmare. Doctors said it would pass. But after the explosion, Scarlett's insecurity became worse. She became convinced they were all going to die. The psychologist asked her to draw her nightmare and she drew a thin black line.
'It got to a point where she wouldn't go out,' says Mrs Branch. 'She wasn't the only one - the little boy down the road was just as bad. But the worst thing was that her behaviour changed - she was expelled from the local school for being physically and verbally abusive and we had to put her in a special school.'
The Branch's house looks bare, but that is because their ornaments are already packed away. They are leaving in four weeks, irrespective of the settlement reached with Texaco. 'We haven't yet told the other villagers because we'd be classed as deserters. But at the end of the day, our interests lie with Scarlett.'
Derek Lloyd is the Texaco man responsible for handling the negotiations over Rhoscrowther. Seen from the window of his air-conditioned office, the plant looks like the rusty skeleton of a beached ocean liner. Cynics in the village say that Texaco is growing so much that the opportunity to buy extra land could not be more timely. The suggestion is dismissed by Mr Lloyd. 'Our motivation is entirely altruistic,' he says. 'We understand how the villagers feel and that's why we've responded in the generous way we have. Most of the families in privately owned homes have accepted our offer. (A claim disputed by the villagers' solicitor.) We're down to a very small number of people with aspirations that are out of this world.'
But is it safe to continue to live in Rhoscrowther? What about the fallout the other night? 'What happened the other night was an error,' he replies. 'But the substance was alumina-silicate, no more dangerous than being in a sandstorm. It's gritty and so it can scratch vehicles. That's why we've offered to pay for the villagers' cars to be valeted. As for safety, well, there's a risk to everything we do, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says there is no unacceptable risk. Our buying the village is not an admission that it's unsafe.'
But the safety issue is not so easily explained away. The HSE, the national body on such matters, recently advised against planning permission for a new caravan park on the grounds that it was 400 yards from the refinery. But the HSE has made no such recommendation for Rhoscrowther. Its principal inspector of factories, Bruce McGovern, explains the anomaly: 'The legislation regarding major hazard installations and their proximity to communities has only been around since 1982. Prior to that, the arrangements that existed were informal and much more lax. The HSE is under no obligation to apply the new legislation retrospectively.' This effectively means that communities existing prior to 1982 may not be able to look to the HSE for adequate protection. This gives the Rhoscrowther deal national significance. Communities living near other hazardous installations will be watching this space with
Legislation aside, does the HSE believe that Texaco presents no real risks? 'Well . . . yes . . . in a guarded way,' says Mr McGovern. 'But if I say yes, you'll ask me how an explosion could have occurred in January.' Are other communities in more danger than they realise? 'Pass,' he replies.
Back in the Crowther Inn, Peter Prynne is bashing out a statement on his old manual typewriter, to read to Sky television later in the week. On the television in the corner, the BBC news logo appears, and then, about fourth item down the agenda, the newscaster reads: 'The refinery owned by Texaco near Los Angeles airport was rocked by a huge explosion last night which was felt up to 15 miles away. The Los Angeles fire department called it a major emergency and 14 injuries have been
reported . . .'