Broken safety gauge to blame for Buncefield fire, report concludes

A broken safety gauge was the cause of Europe's biggest peacetime fire, according to an inspectors' report published yesterday.

For more than two hours on 11 December last year, the gauge recorded no change in the volume of fuel in one of the storage tanks at Buncefield oil depot while petrol was being pumped in at a rate of 550 cubic metres an hour. After the tank reached capacity, 300 tons of petrol spilt, forming a vapour cloud which resulted in a series of explosions, injuring 43 people and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.

Toxic chemicals used to put out the Buncefield fire have polluted the local water system, prompting the water inspectorate to alter the definition of what constitutes safe drinking water. As reported in The Independent on 4 May, the inspectorate has accepted scientific advice that water is safe to drink if it contains no more than three micrograms per litre of a toxic substance known as PFOS, which was previously considered to be so dangerous that the Government was preparing legislation to ban imports.

Yesterday's report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) warned that chemicals from fighting the firehave passed into the water table. Since the fire, inspectors have taken almost 400 water samples from sources around Buncefield, near Hemel Hempstead. They have found traces of PFOS, but below the level said to be safe for human consumption.

Air quality inspectors sought yesterday to allay public fears about the damage done to the atmosphere by a smoke cloud more than 200 miles wide. A separate report published yesterday by the Environment Department, Defra, said: "It is unlikely that pollutants emitted after the Buncefield oil depot explosion had widespread impacts on air quality at ground level."

But experts said that it was because weather conditions allowed the smoke to rise high into the atmosphere, spreading the pollutants over a large distance. Professor Ian Colbeck, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, said: "If this event occurred in the summer then the corresponding ground level air pollution impacts would have been significant."

Dr Alastair Lewis, of the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, said: "Although air quality was not adversely affected, persistent organic pollutants generated by the fire will not simply have disappeared. They will have ultimately been deposited into the soil or the ocean."

A safety gauge in tank 192 at Buncefield appears to have jammed at about 3am on 11 December, showing the tank two-thirds full. The tank was full by about 5.20am, after which a vapour cloud rose above the tank, visible on CCTV.

The tank was also fitted with an alarm, independent of the faulty gauge, which should have gone off as the petrol reached the maximum level. The alarm should have automatically closed the valves to prevent more fuel being pumped into the tank. But it appears that, like the level gauge, the alarm system was broken. Inspectors may never find out what caused the explosion, because the evidence was destroyed in the fire. It could have been a spark from a nearby fire pump house, or an emergency generator, or a passing car.

The HSE report ­ the third since the fire ­ did not allocate blame for fear of jeopardising a possible court case. But the HSE has been asked whether it is in a position to judge if human error was to blame, because it was responsible for inspecting the site.

Mike Penning, the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, has called for a public inquiry into the fire and said that the progress report moved the inquiry along "only fractionally" and he expressed concern over investigations conducted "behind closed doors".

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Our Primary School in Grimsby ar...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 6 Supply Teacher Position a...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?