Canvey Island

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1978.

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Photo of Mr Guy Barnett Mr Guy Barnett , Greenwich 12:00 am, 3rd August 1978

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) as he said in the speech that he has just delivered, has on several occasions drawn the attention of the House to the concern of many of the residents of Canvey Island about the possible dangers which arise from the proximity of various industrial complexes to residential development. The issues are complex. It is right that they should be thoroughly explored and that decisions for the future should be taken on the basis of as comprehensive an assessment as it is possible to make of potential hazards. I want to try to deal with as many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised as I can. Some of them, as he will understand, are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

The hon. Gentleman has given the background to this matter and I will not go over the whole ground again. The essential points are that two companies, Occidental Refineries Limited and United Refiners Limited, have been granted planning permissions to construct oil refineries on the west side of Canvey Island. In the case of Occidental, substantial development had taken place before work stopped as a result of the oil crisis in 1975.

In 1974, following anxiety locally about the safety implications of the proposed developments, the then Secretary of State for the Environment decided to hold an exploratory public inquiry into the desirability of revoking the planning permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. in 1973. The inquiry took place on the island in February and March 1974. The inspector recommended that a revocation order should be made, but one of the assessors had suggested that a study should be made of the totality of risks in the area, and the possibility of interaction between installations in the event of fire or explosion. The Secretary of State deferred a decision and, with the then Secretary of State for Employment, asked the Health and Safety Commission to carry out a study on the safety of installations within the Canvey area.

The report, which was published on 20th June, describes an exhaustive investigation of the risks to health and safety from the existing and proposed installations on and in the neighbourhood of Canvey Island. The investigating team of experts visited the various industrial installations to carry out a detailed in- vestigation of what goes on in each plant, what could go wrong and what the possible effects would be. They also looked at the proposals for additional refining facilities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member in the House on 20th June, welcomed the report as a valuable contribution to discussion of health and safety and environmental matters in the area. He pointed out that installations covered by the report form a significant part of the United Kingdom oil, gas and petrochemical industries and relate closely to the utilisation of our North Sea resources. The report would therefore be of importance in assisting decisions which may affect those who live in the area, those who depend on the installations for their employment, and the contribution which the installations make to the economy.

The recent investigation was, of course, concerned with the safety of existing installations as well as the proposed refinery developments, and on that side a number of specific recommendations for action now have emerged from the inquiry, and these are already being followed up by the Health and Safety Executive.

There are three existing installations on Canvey Island handling potentially dangerous materials whose activities were investigated by the team. They are the British Gas Corporation's methane gas terminal, and tank farms owned respectively by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited. Certain installations on the mainland which could present a threat to the island were also investigated, as was the movement of dangerous substances in the area by road, rail, pipeline and water. Each of these activities was the subject of close inquiry, situations which could lead to a number of casualties were identified, and estimates were made of the probability of an accident occurring and of its consequences in terms of the number of casualties. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the risks, and I fully understand his concern for the people who are living in the area.

It is important to bear in mind that an accident which is regarded as capable of causing a large number of casualties will not necessarily result in such massive consequences, nor does the consideration given to particular accident imply that the chances of their happening are necessarily very high. Throughout the study the investigating team was requested by the Health and Safety Executive to err on the side of pessimism in its estimates. The overall assessment resulting from all this investigation was summed up by the Health and Safety Executive, which said that the picture was not one which ought to result in fear and worry among people living in and around Canvey. The most likely outcome, in the view of the HSE experts, is that nothing should happen in the industrial installations in the area which will hurt anyone outside them.

Nevertheless, the study showed that certain actions needed to be taken in regard to the installations which were investigated. Indeed, one of the positive results to emerge from all the inquiries, analyses, and so on, is the series of specific recommendations relating to the existing installations. During the course of the investigation certain matters came to light which required immediate action. These were dealt with as they arose in the usual way in accordance with the health and safety legislation.

By the end of its investigation the team had identified various ways in which the risks from the existing installations could be further reduced. These are detailed in the report, and I understand that discussions have already begun between Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive and senior management of the firms concerned in order to secure the necessary improvements. I will say a little more about those affecting the installations on the island itself.

At the British Gas Corporation terminal the team has suggested that the pipeline from the terminal that contains liquefied petroleum gas could be emptied and taken out of service. It also suggested that the capacities of the existing containment walls around the boundaries of the tank farms of inflammable liquids at the sites owned by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited should be increased.