The Buncefield oil storage site in Hertfordshire - which a week ago was destroyed in an explosion that caused hundreds of millions of pounds of damage - was built to an outdated design that would not be sanctioned today, it has emerged.
Following an explosion last Sunday morning, fire raged through the site, which is jointly operated by the UK arm of French oil giant Total, BP and the British Pipeline Agency (BPA), a joint venture between BP and Shell. Firefighters managed to put the fire out only late in the week, and emergency services have said it was a miracle that nobody was killed.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is leading an investigation into the explosion, believed to have been caused by a leak from a pipeline carrying aviation fuel and operated by Total. However, the role of the HSE and how it allowed Buncefield to operate when its design may have made it unsafe are also to come under scrutiny.
If the investigation finds any failures by the HSE, the organisation could face multi-million-pound legal actions.
Buncefield was built in 1968 primarily to provide aviation fuel for Heathrow airport. It was expanded in the 1980s and the 1990s by the addition of pipelines bringing fuel in from the Humber and Merseyside and taking it to Heathrow and Gatwick. The explosion has caused a shortage of fuel at those airports.
A senior environmental protection expert, who asked not to be named, told The Independent on Sunday that there were serious flaws in the design of Buncefield that contributed to the intensity of the disaster.
He claimed that the site was too crowded to handle the volume of highly inflammable aviation fuel passing through it. The fuel tanks were grouped three or four to a bund - a containment area intended to prevent spillages spreading.
In continental Europe, sites rarely have more than two tanks to a bund; German experts have commented that no sites in that country are as crowded as Buncefield.
"If you were building it today, you would not build it like that," said the expert.
Both Total and the BPA pointed out that they had agreed safety reports with the HSE to comply with European regulations on the control of major hazards. The HSE visited the site as recently as 24 November.
"The site complied with all international safety standards," said a BPA spokesman.
The investigation will also look at the risk assessments conducted by Total and the BPA at Buncefield. These are believed to have assessed only the effect of a leak at one tank. Such a leak would have caused a flash fire that would have burned out within hours, whereas in the real-life explosion a plume of fire and smoke went into the air. This indicated a high-pressure leak more akin to pipes carrying liquefied petroleum gas, a fuel not believed to have been stored at Buncefield.Reuse content