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Valero Oil Refinery came close to ‘catastrophic incident’

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EXCLUSIVE REPORT

 

A POTENTIALLY ‘catastrophic incident’ took place at Valero’s Pembroke Oil Refinery last year involving leaking gas and an ignition source, the Pembrokeshire Herald can reveal.

​​This newspaper has been contacted by a number of workers at the site who have told us that it is only ​’pure luck’ which prevented leaking gases from​ being blown into an ignition source, believed to be a furnace, which could have led to another lethal incident at the plant.
Valero have confirmed that they are working with statutory authorities who are investigating the event, which occurred ​on November 3​0​ last year. It involved the Alkylate Iso-Stripper, which creates Alkylate – a premium component of petrol that has exceptional anti-knock properties and is clean burning. The Iso-Stripper is a high risk area of refining, and uses either sulphuric acid or hydrofluoric acid as a catalyst for its chemical reactions.
The oil refinery’s management told The Herald that it is working with ‘continued co-operation’ with regulators, and highlighted in a statement that ‘no personnel were injured’ and that ‘there was no impact on the community’​.​
Valero, which says it is one of the leading employers in south Wales, added that they are unable to comment further during the period of investigation.
HSE INVESTIGATES
A Health & Safety Executive spokesperson told The Herald in a prepared statement: “We are aware of an incident at the Valero Energy Limited Pembroke Refinery in November 2017 which was reported to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013).
“We can confirm that the incident took place on the Alkylate Iso-Stripper, and is being investigated.
“No enforcement action has been taken, though the investigation remains ongoing.”
PUSHING THE PLANT HARDER
Our source​s​ working at the refinery told The Pembrokeshire Herald, on condition of anonymity, that the incident last year was due to the refinery being pushed harder than before. This, combined with the ageing infrastructure at the site, lead to the close call.
He told us: “They have increased output which puts more strain on the equipment.​”
Another employee at the site, who also did not wish to be named, confirmed this. He said that since the refinery was bought from Chevron, it is being stretched and running ​20-30% harder than before.
This, combined with a lack of maintenance, is making it an ‘accident waiting to happen’, he added.
RECENT LEAK OF GAS
Valero confirmed that last month’s activation of emergency sirens was in response to another leak of gas at the plant. But it is not currently known from which part of the refinery.
Readers contacted The Pembrokeshire Herald by telephone​ and social media on the morning of March 29 concerned after hearing a warning sound, which started at exactly 8.01am.
On contacting the refinery the Herald was initially told by a security worker: “We have no information at the moment, we are not sure if it’s a test or not.”
Looking to clarify his answer, our reporter asked: “So you are not sure if it’s a test or a real emergency?”
The Herald was told: “That’s right”
It is understood that there was confusion due to previous false alarms.
Later this newspaper received a statement from Valero spokesperson and Refinery Public Affairs Manager, Stephen Thornton, who said: “At 8:00 am on 29th March 2018, the alarm sounded on site due to identification of a minor gas leak.
“Operations responded promptly to isolate and de-pressure the line to stop the leak.”
SAFETY A ‘GUIDING PRINCIPLE’
In a statement prepared by Valero for The Pembrokeshire Herald, the company said: “Safety is the guiding principle for all that we do at Pembroke Refinery, and Valero takes strong exception to any suggestions otherwise. As one of Europe’s largest and most complex refineries, our highly skilled workforce at Pembroke Refinery operates according to comprehensive and rigorous management systems and standards of safety.
Valero does not comment on operational activities at Pembroke Refinery, however all our activities are conducted within approved regulatory permit limits. All refinery work is undertaken according to stringent regulatory, industry and company standards that ensure the continued effective integrity of the plant, regardless of working capacity. Our advanced and sophisticated operational, inspection and maintenance procedures at the refinery are underpinned by a safety culture fostered across all our personnel, focused on recognising and eliminating hazards before they occur.
“In addition to our own focus on safety, Valero also actively works alongside public bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, emergency services, the local authority and other agencies to manage risk. This includes Valero’s continued cooperation with regulators regarding an ongoing investigation into an event that occurred in November 2017. No personnel were injured during this incident and there were no impacts on the community, however we are unable to comment further during this investigation.
“Anyone making enquiries regarding Valero’s operations, including our site alarm system, should ask to speak to a member of Valero’s Policy, Government & Public Affairs Department.
“All calls received at the refinery are dealt with by our dedicated security team who follow protocol of not confirming refinery operational details, but will pass your details on if requested.​”​

Akylation unit: The location in the refinery where ‘dangerous incident’ occurred

OIL REFINING – A HAZARDOUS ENTERPRISE

Refinery fire: 2011 accident tragically claimed four lives

It is not the first time that Valero have had the safety of their workplace questioned, nor the first time an incident has affected the Pembroke refinery.
Valero were fined £400,000 at Swansea Crown Court after an incident involving a walkway collapsing and an employee left hanging from ropes at their refinery in Pembroke. It was found that Valero, the American oil company which purchased the Pembroke site in a £447m deal in March 2011, failed to follow procedure and carry out a comprehensive risk assessment on the access tower of which the gangway collapsed seriously injuring a worker.
It was said in court that the maintenance contractor of Valero had their suggestions ignored over the potential risks of the access tower, as they raised the point that there was a ‘potential fatal accident waiting to happen.’ Valero were also seen to give inadequate training and instructions to employees, regarding the safe operation of the tower and gangway.
The incident took place on March 5 2012, as David Thomas, an operator at the refinery, was making his way towards an unloading oil tanker via the gangway of the access tower. The walkway suddenly collapsed and he was dropped 3.5 metres. Mr Thomas, 55, was left swinging from wire rope that had wrapped round his legs, but, as a keen rock climber, was able to distribute the weight from his legs by gripping a cross beam. Despite this, he suffered a dislocated knee as well as lacerations and fractures. Mr Thomas was released from hospital after 17 days, but soon developed arthritis, and ultimately didn’t return to work.
It was deemed that three other related incidents at the refinery previous to the gangway accident, in August 2010, February 2011 and September 2011, were poorly investigated and that a proper checklist assessment was not carried out.
At the time of the infamous explosion in June 2011, which resulted in four fatalities, the refinery was still operated by Chevron, yet the deal to sell the refinery to Valero had already been organised. In November 2015, the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately decided against pressing charges of corporate manslaughter.

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Pharmacy burglars smashed through ceiling

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THE POLICE have issued a warning following a burglary at a chemist in Milford Haven in which a large quantity of controlled drugs were stolen.

Dyfed-Powys Police is investigating the break-in Charles Street, which took place overnight on Wednesday, July 18.

Controlled drugs including boxes of diazepam and zopiclone, and bottles of oramorph were taken.

The pharmacist told The Herald: “We are open for business as usual despite a large amount of stock being taken, which in addition to what the police have listed also included codeine.

“We are having more stock delivered shortly so are able to meet our orders with customers.

“The criminals broke into the pharmacy, which is very secure all around, from the ceiling – they came in from the flat above the shop.”

“We are all very upset and find this distressing. This is the first time that anything like this has happened.”

Sergeant Andy Williams told The Herald: “A substantial amount of medication has been taken, many of which have the potential to cause harm if taken incorrectly.

“We are advising people to be aware in case the stolen items are discarded in a public place.”

Anyone with information about the break-in, who finds a quantity of drugs, or is offered any of the drugs named above, is urged to contact police by calling 101, quoting reference 64 of July 19.

Alternatively, contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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Council and teaching union come to agreement over possible redundancies

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL and The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) have come to an agreement about the possibility of potential redundancies from Sir Thomas Picton and Tasker Milward staff.

Last month, nearly 100 teachers were involved in a strike over fears of job losses as the two schools merge to form a new one – Haverfordwest High VC School, which will open in September.

Now, both sides have come to an agreement that there will be no compulsory redundancies before the end of the 2019/2020 academic year.

A spokesperson for Pembrokeshire County Council said: “Following discussions with the Conciliation service ACAS regarding the dispute at Sir Thomas Picton and Tasker Milward schools, Pembrokeshire County Council and NASUWT -The Teacher’s Union – have reached agreement regarding any potential redundancies at the schools.

“Both sides look forward to working together in future for the benefit and wellbeing of the pupils.

“It has been agreed that there will be no compulsory redundancies before the end of the academic year 2019/2020.”

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Milford Haven: Five recognised for making a difference

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THE ACHIEVEMENTS of five hard-working women who have made a huge difference in their community in Milford Haven have been recognised nationally in the TPAS Cymru awards.

Sarah Howlin, Kimberly Phillips, Leeanna Povey, Linda Rose and Catrin Tattersall won third place in the Community Action category for their work on the Mount Estate.

Together, as the Mount Estate Play and Participation Team (MEPPT), they provide free weekly play sessions for families in a friendly and welcoming environment at the Orchard Community Centre.

There is a wide selection of toys and games together with a number of art and craft activities and a fire pit where families can chat and toast marshmallows.

On behalf of the team, Leeanna and Catrin attended the gala awards ceremony in Cardiff where they were presented with the award.

Leeanna said the team’s first reaction to hearing they’d been shortlisted was to burst out laughing.

“It’s not the sort of news you’re used to having,” she said. “Two of us went to the ceremony and we were both nervous wrecks and didn’t know what to expect, but everyone was lovely and we are a very happy household!”

Leeanna said the number attending the playgroup varies from week to week, with numbers up to 50 sometimes.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is to get the community together; there’s lots here for families to do, you can have a gas and if there’s something wrong we’re here for each other.”

She added that the team are keen to share their experience and will be attending Playday at Scolton Manor on Wednesday, August 1 to talk to others who are thinking of setting up similar groups.

Before launching the play sessions, MEPPT undertook a number of accredited courses, with help from Learning Pembrokeshire and the Council’s Learning and Development team. They have also been supported by Dyfed Powys Police and Milford Haven Town Council.

Damian Golden, Play Sufficiency Officer at Pembrokeshire County Council, supports the group along with Nia Davies, with training, grants and funding advice. He said he was delighted their work had been recognised.

“I’ve worked in this sector for many years and their journey is something very special indeed,” he said. “They really are changing things in their community. What they’ve achieved is extraordinary. It doesn’t happen every day.

“This award is important in that it cements their self-worth and is empowering – knowing that they have the strength to change things.”

Cllr Josh Beynon, County Councillor for Pembroke Dock (Llanion ward) is among those impressed by their work.

He said: “It’s a great testament to the parents who run the play activities on the Mount Estate to be taking home a national award from TPAS.

“Through their hard work they have proved that they are able to bring together a community and I hope they have inspired other communities across Pembrokeshire to undertake similar pieces of work to help those who need it.”

Nia Davies, County Council Housing Customer Liaison Officer, submitted the award nomination to TPAS along with Damian Golden.

She said: “This is a first for a Pembrokeshire County Council group to be nominated and awarded a national TPAS Social Housing Participation Award and I can think of no one more deserving than MEPPT!

“I hope other parents are inspired by this amazing group and are encouraged to do the same as it really does provide invaluable benefits to all members of the community.”

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