Buncefield prosecutions, and what it means for your business

You might think that the Buncefield prosecutions are irrelevant because your site isn’t in COMAH, but the new Environmental Damage Regulations due to come into force in 2009, (see draft regulations and guidance) will make businesses of any type liable for cleaning up environmental damage whether they are under COMAH or not.

So it’s worth looking at what happened at Buncefield to see how the environmental damage that occurred can be prevented or minimized on any site making, using or handling chemicals.

The Buncefield incident (see www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk/index.htm) on 11th December 2005 involved a large fire at a fuel storage facility regulated under the COMAH regime. Fortunately there was no loss of life, but there were significant environmental impacts, including a large smoke plume into the atmosphere, and loss of containment of firewater contaminated by fuel and firefighting chemicals which left the site and ended up getting into a nearby chalk aquifer through an abandoned borehole/ monitoring well which was inside a drainage system.

The prosecutions for Buncefield have now been announced, to be heard on 23rd January 2009 – see www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk/press/b08002.htm .

3 of the 9 charges are for allowing groundwater to become polluted, even though the abandoned well was offsite, and had not been created by any of the companies facing prosecution, and was not under their control in any way.

Environmental harm is based on the principle of Source-Pathway-Receptor linkage – all three need to be present to allow harm to happen. In this case, the source was the contaminated firewater, the pathway was the abandoned well, and the receptor was the groundwater in the chalk aquifer.

In this instance, the businesses responsible for creating the source are being held fully responsible, even though it is unlikely that the groundwater would have been contaminated if the well had not been drilled. This is exactly the same as the situation under the new Environmental Damage Regulations – in effect, as a business, you need to control your hazardous substances as much as possible, in case someone else creates a pathway to allow them into the environment.

Like most incidents, there were several contributory factors at Buncefield which allowed the contaminated firewater to get into the aquifer. Some key steps were:

  • Bunds overflowed, particularly with fuel which was lighter than water and floated on the surface of the firewater in the bunds; and also with foam, which again floated on top of the firewater
  • Bunds failed, mainly because of construction flaws/ inability to withstand hydrostatic pressure when they were filled.
  • The resulting large spill was not contained on site, but overflowed off site
  • The monitoring well was not in use, but had been left in situ without being closed off
  • The information about the well, and the potential for pollution had not been discovered as part of the COMAH risk assessment

So what can you do to prevent this type of incident?

  • The EA have issued new standards on bunds, which is based on the lessons from Buncefield. There are new requirements for extra freeboard to cope with floating liquids and foam, and requires consideration about emptying bunds from the bottom during an incident (e.g. by siphon) to remove water but allow less dense materials to be contained. See www.environment-agency.gov.uk/static/documents/Business/containmentpolicy_1961223.pdf.
  • Look at preventing firewater going off site in the first place, if possible – there is new guidance on secondary and tertiary containment at www.environment-agency.gov.uk/static/documents/Business/release_2041305.pdf which contains much useful advice and links to other useful documents. There is also PPG2 for oil storage at non-fuel depot sites, seepublications.environment-agency.gov.uk/pdf/PMHO0204BHTN-e-e.pdf and PPG 18 for managing firewater and large spillages publications.environment-agency.gov.uk/pdf/PMHO600BBUD-e-e.pdf?lang=_e . For a full list of current PPGs (Pollution Prevention Guidelines) see www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/topics/pollution/39083.aspx.
  • If firewater can be fully retained onsite, you should identify all boreholes/ monitoring wells and water wells on site, whether these are in use or not.
    • If you have any redundant boreholes in the likely path of firewater or a large spill, you should try to get these closed / sealed. If you are an EP-IPPC or COMAH site, seek the EA’s guidance on whether you can do this first, as they may want these kept open e.g. for monitoring groundwater in future. Important note – Sealing boreholes is most definitely a job for a specialist geotechnical contractor, don’t just think you can shove a few barrowloads of concrete down the hole.
    • For boreholes which can’t be sealed (e.g. because you are using them to sample groundwater) there are flood covers which are designed to withstand varying degrees of traffic use, and to prevent floodwater or other substances eg large spill getting down a borehole or monitoring well.. Another important note – flood covers need to be installed properly to work, specialist contractors are advised. You don’t want to find that they don’t work when you’ve had an incident and it’s too late.
  • If firewater and/or a major spill would run offsite during a major incident, your options are more limited:
    • You could try to identify drains and boreholes in the likely path of any overland flow. Your local water company will provide you with drain maps, usually chargeable, and there is free information from the EA website for some abstraction points for potable water, although industrial/ commercial abstractions are not usually included. You could also try to identify BGS-registered boreholes from the BGS (British Geological Survey), although not every borehole is registered with the BGS as this is a voluntary scheme.
    • There is also the possibility of asking your neighbours about boreholes, monitoring wells and water wells, and whether these are open, closed, sealed or protected in any way, although this can be tricky to do without scaring them.

We will keep an eye on the Buncefield prosecutions outcome, and also the new Environmental Damage regulations and post more news articles on how we think these regulations may affect chemical using and manufacturing businesses.

If you need help with preventing pollution to land and groundwater, we would be happy to help – contact Janet on 01422 242222, or email janet@ttenvironmental.co.uk.

News article Dec/2008/16