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Esso faces fine over 'major safety lapse' which caused gas leak at Fawley oil refinery

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BETWEEN 15 and 21 tonnes of hazardous gas leaked into the atmosphere at Fawley oil refinery after a "major" safety lapse, a court heard.

Esso Petroleum Company, which is subsidiary of ExxonMobil and operates the 670-acre site, has admitted the incident in 2015 contravened health and safety regulations and now faces a fine that could go into six figures.

Southampton Magistrates’ Court was told it happened after operators made changes following a review of thermal relief valves in an effort to make operations safer and more efficient.

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

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecutor David Brookes told the court the error was spotted by a refinery operator who was cycling home from work and saw the leak in the air.

He explained the leak started sometime around 2pm on 14th November 2015 and continued for about five hours, adding "15 to 21 tonnes" of liquid petroleum gas (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.

He explained the cause was a thermal relief valve had not been set to take account of the maximum operating pressure when LPG was routed from the Poly Plant facility to Powerformer Plant Two.

An error had been made when making calculations over the pressure setting, Mr Brookes said, and it emerged in court that while the correct procedural checks were in place, five separate employees had failed to spot the mistake.

After the issue was raised it took the refinery 90 minutes to locate the valve causing the problems, before emergency workers put it right, the court heard.

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

Esso appeared in court having admitted one charge of contravening a health and safety regulation by failing to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents and to limit their consequences for human health and the environment.

The charge was contrary to the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015 and a section of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Simon Antrobus, for Esso, revealed that the refinery had self-reported the incident to the HSE before conducting its own internal investigation and handing the findings to HSE.

That co-operation and early guilty plea was testament to Esso’s willingness to address the shortcomings that had happened, which he said had been down to "human error" after changes that were designed to boost safety.

"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. He said the commitment to improvement was shown by a number of high ranking Fawley staff who showed up to the hearing, including new manager Riccardo Carvallo.

The operator, which is valued at around £8Bn, had a very good track record in its 70-year history at the site, Mr Antrobus added.

Both prosecution and defence argued over the size of the potential fine, but agreed it will amount to at least tens of thousands and could be placed in a bracket that goes as high as £150,000.

District Judge Anthony Calloway adjourned the hearing to a future, unspecified, date so he could make a written judgement that will include the level of fine.

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