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HSE probes fatal refinery blast

THE UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) this morning launched an investigation into last night’s fatal explosion at Chevron’s 220,000 barrel a day Pembroke refinery in southwest Wales.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) this morning launched an investigation into last night’s fatal explosion at Chevron’s 220,000 barrel a day Pembroke refinery in southwest Wales.

According to initial reports, maintenance work was under way when an explosion rocked a 730-cubic metre storage tank, sparking a fire. Four workers were killed and a nearby storage tank was also damaged.

A fifth worker is in hospital in a serious but stable condition. Chevron said all five were contractors.

Chevron issued a statement this afternoon, denying reports that the refinery had been shut in. The Pembroke refinery processes crude from the North Sea, Russia and West Africa into diesel, gasoline and jet fuel. The storage tank that exploded and caused a fire contained no crude, minimising the disruption to operations. Chevron added that the refinery continued to operate after the fire was extinguished yesterday.

Eyewitnesses last night told local media they saw “a fireball rising up into the sky” after the explosion. The plume of smoke was estimated to be about 50 metres wide. 

A Chevron spokesman told Bloomberg there will be no changes to worker shifts at the Pembroke plant today. “Staff will be there today on the shift patterns you’d expect,” he said. “A small number of non-essential staff aren’t coming in.”  

Chief Superintendent Gwyn Thomas from Dyfed Powys Police said a police investigation is now under way in conjunction with the HSE probe. He added that early indications show that this was “a tragic industrial incident”.

He said: “Police officers have secured the scene and colleagues from Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue are working to make the site safe to enable a multi agency investigation into the cause of the explosion to commence.”

Chris Davies, assistant chief fire officer from Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue, said the fire was extinguished quickly and the crews worked to make the scene safe for police to start their investigation.

“We can confirm that any material released into the atmosphere as a result of the blast were immediately dispersed,” he added. “The wind was blowing off shore, away from residential areas. Members of the public can be reassured that there is no ongoing risk to health as a result of the incident.”

In March, Chevron announced plans to sell the Pembroke refinery to Valero Energy Corporation for $730 million to lower the company’s exposure to losses from falling oil demand in Europe.

At the time, Mike Wirth, Chevron’s downstream executive vice president, said the US-based supermajor was selling the unit as it shifted the focus of its downstream portfolio primarily to North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Wirth said these are markets where Chevron enjoys its “greatest competitive strength and opportunities for growth." The deal expected to be finalised by the end of this year.

Chevron also has interests in 10 offshore producing fields in the UK including the Alba, Captain, Erskine and Strathspey fields in the North Sea.

The company also has stakes in five non-operated field alongside other downstream assets in the UK and Ireland.

The Pembroke plant, which specialises in processing heavy, lower-quality crudes, was shut in July 1994 after a similar accident, in which 26 staff were injured. A severe electrical storm caused disturbances with equipment at the plant. At the time, the refinery was operated by Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001.

Lightning struck the crude distillation unit which started a fire, causing the plant to be shut down. About 20 tonnes of flammable hydrocarbons were released from the plant, forming a vapour cloud which then ignited.

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