North Sea gas plant came close to disaster

A GAS storage platform in the North Sea, with 70 workers on board, has been close to disaster twice this year after two serious gas leaks, which have been blamed on managerial mistakes.

The Health and Safety Executive has ordered BG (formerly British Gas), which operates the platform, to carry out urgent improvements to safety procedures. An internal BG report, obtained by The Independent, highlights the seriousness of the first leak last February and points to a catalogue of management and operational mistakes.

The two leaks bear remarkable similarity to the leak of gas which led to the Piper Alpha disaster almost exactly 10 years ago, when 167 oil workers died after an explosion on the production platform in the North Sea. BG's platform in the Rough gas field lies 20 miles off Hull.

BG's report, by its safety and environment directorate, says: "There were no injuries but the high potential for major loss deemed it necessary to instigate a thorough independent investigation." The report's executive summary concludes that there was "less than adequate planning of activities including risk assessment" and "less than adequate incident response management".

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) officials ordered BG to tighten up its procedures after the second leak, three weeks ago, even before its own investigation into the first leak had been completed.

A spokesman for the HSE confirmed that a full investigation of both gas leaks was under way and said legal action had not been ruled out.

BG said it would be "inappropriate" to comment in detail on the leaks while the HSE was in the middle of an investi-gation.

Unions claim the incidents, on 13 February and 20 May, bear an uncanny resemblance to the Piper Alpha gas leak. Roger Spiller, head of MSF's North Sea section, said: "Our members are very concerned that BG appears to have done nothing to sort out the problems."

The starting problem in both leaks appears to have been failure of a flange during maintenance work. Lord Cullen's inquiry into Piper Alpha found that that disaster was similarly caused by the failure of a flange and made safety recommendations to ensure that similar failures could not happen again.

BG confirmed it had hit trouble on Rough, which is used for the storage of gas to meet peak winter demands.

A formal statement, released yesterday about the 13 February incident, says: "This occurred during routine maintenance operations, when a seal failed during testing. This was an attended operation, and the leak was quickly controlled by operations staff offshore."

Of the 20 May incident, a company statement said: "The platform, which was in injection mode at the time, immediately shut down. There were no injuries or damage, and the platform was available for normal operations within half an hour."