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ExxonMobil fined £500,000 over 'deeply regrettable' Fawley oil refinery gas leak that prompted Health and Safety Executive investigation

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THE operator of Fawley oil refinery has said it "deeply regrets" a safety lapse after it was hit with a £500,000 fine.

ExxonMobil landed in hot water after between 15 and 21 tonnes of hazardous gas leaked into the atmosphere on 15th November 2015 – with the punishment handed out by district judge Anthony Calloway at Southampton Magistrates’ Court.

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: "We deeply regret this incident, and have actively revised relevant processes and procedures to further strengthen our safe operations. We have co-operated fully and constructively with the HSE in the course of its investigation.

The refinery self-reported the incident (picture: petertt/123rf.com)
The refinery self-reported the incident (picture: petertt/123rf.com)

"ExxonMobil Fawley works within the highest regulatory standards, and is committed to its safety and environmental responsibilities."

The court had been told the uncontrolled release occurred through a valve near the main roadway used by liquid petroleum gas (LPG) road tankers visiting the refinery and was discovered by an employee cycling home.

After he raised the alarm it took a further hour to establish the source of the leak, with on-site emergency personnel having to enter the area to reset the valve.

The refinery self-reported the incident to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which investigated. It had found the leak after operators made changes following a review of thermal relief valves in an effort to make operations safer and more efficient.

LPG was put through the pipework at too a high a pressure for the valve and there was no process in place to detect the discrepancy in the flow.

HSE prosecutor David Brookes explained the leak started around 2pm and continued for about five hours, adding "15 to 21 tonnes" of LPG was released.

That was a "major lapse", since under guidelines a leakage of about half a tonne would cause concern and regulatory action, he added.

Esso Petroleum Company pleaded guilty to one count of breaching Regulation 5(1) of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (COMAH) 2015.

It was stressed no-one was injured in the incident, and it represented a very low likelihood of causing harm to the general public or refinery workers.

Simon Antrobus, for Esso, said it had been co-operative with HSE, even conducting its own internal investigation into the incident and handing all the findings to the agency.

"This is not a company concerned with protecting itself, it was concerned about getting it right," he stressed.

The refinery had since made changes and increased training in a bid to ensure the incident was not repeated. The operator, valued at around £8bn, had a very good track record in its 70-year history at the site, Mr Antrobus told the court.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector, Jonathan Halewood said: "The measures required to prevent incidents should be proportionate to the risks.

"Where companies handle large quantities of substances that can cause major incidents, such as LPG, they are required to have layers of protection in place to prevent incidents.

"In this incident a number of those layers either failed or were not in place resulting in a significant leak.

"Even though there was no fire or injury on this occasion, there was potential for a major incident."

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