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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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Milford Haven: Three residents win in Postcode Lottery

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THREE people in Milford Haven got a lovely surprise this morning (Jan 22) after waking up to the good news that their bank accounts will be boosted by £1,000 each, all thanks to their lucky postcode.

The Roebuck Close neighbours landed the lolly when SA73 1AS was announced as a Daily Prize winner with People’s Postcode Lottery.

People’s Postcode Lottery ambassador Judie McCourt sent her congratulations and said: “What a terrific Tuesday for our players in Milford Haven who have picked up a prize today! I hope they treat themselves to something special with the windfall.”

A minimum of 32% of ticket sales goes directly to charities and players of People’s Postcode Lottery have raised £382 million to date for 5,500 good causes across Great Britain and internationally.

Many good causes local to the winners have benefitted from the money raised, and the next opportunity to apply for funding will be on the 6th of February.

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Two men arrested following discovery of illegal slaughterhouse

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TWO men were arrested on Monday (Jan 21) after a multi-agency response to an illegal slaughterhouse in west Wales.

Police say that live animals were found living amongst carcasses.

As the investigation is ongoing, police have refused to comment where exactly the site of the illegal slaughterhouse was discovered.

Warning: Shocking image below.

A spokesperson for Dyfed-Powys Police’s Rural Crime Team said: “Rural Crime team attended a call with multi-agencies to a report of an illegal slaughterhouse in West Wales.

“Live animals found amongst carcasses.

“Two males were arrested and enquiries are ongoing.

“At this early stage of the investigation we are not prepared to release further information.”

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Llangwm: Solicitor jailed for six years for £1m fraud

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A PEMBROKESHIRE solicitor who overcharged clients by almost £1m has been jailed this week for six years.

Edgar Stephen Thomas, aged 58, charged one client at the rate of £20,000 a week without doing any work at all.

Another was charged at £12,000 a week and went on to lose a total of £100,000.

Thomas, of Stephen’s Green, Deerland Road, Llangwm, admitted 23 offences of fraud and theft, which stopped only when his firm of Steve Thomas and Co was closed down by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority.

Jim Davis, prosecuting, told Swansea Crown Court that Thomas got away with the frauds by deducting monies from the estates of deceased people without telling the beneficiaries.

“He grossly overcharged and then deducted the payments directly from the estates of deceased people,” he said.

“He helped himself without telling them what he was doing.”

The overcharging began in 2005 when he was asked to handle the estate of Richard James Rogers. He charged the estate £41,800 plus VAT but internal documents showed that as the work decreased his bills increased.

Thomas agreed overcharging that estate by £12,000.

Thomas went on to plunder many more accounts.

The most outrageous example, said Mr Davies, related to the estate of Audrey Williams, who died in 2013.

Thomas charged £127,250 plus VAT, sometimes raising–but not posting–two invoices a day. He agreed he had overcharged by £100,000.

Mr Davis said Thomas’ offending did not stop there. His firm was hired by Vaughan’s Radio, an electrical store in Haverfordwest, to handle the purchase of a business in Aberystwyth.

Thomas simply kept for himself £50,000 of the purchase price.

Mr Davis said Thomas had worked for Eaton Evans in Haverfordwest, rising to becoming a partner, before leaving to form his own firm in 2005.

His accounts had to be audited and as a result the SRA were alerted to fears that he was overcharging.

A detailed forensic examination of his accounts was carried out and the fears were confirmed, along with the discovery of a shortfall in his client’s accounts of £144,326.

There was then an administrative error at the SRA and the initial report was not acted upon until June 2014, when a second financial investigation revealed more fraud and he was later struck off.

In February 2015 Thomas was declared bankrupt.

Mr Davis said the SRA had reimbursed those who had lost because of Thomas’ fraudulent behaviour, but there remained the question of costs and whether he could be made to repay any of the money. An investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act is underway.

Thomas’ barrister, Ian Ibrahim, said his client was now broke and all the money had gone on keeping his business afloat.

“His fall from a high place has been dramatic. His remorse is complete and utterly without qualification.

“He has lost everything and knows that he will go to jail today.”

Judge Keith Thomas said those who worked in the legal profession had to demonstrate the highest level of integrity because the public put trust in them, sometimes at the most stressful times of their life.

“Your victims have described your behaviour as disgusting and despicable.

“You were struck off in 2016 and have had to wait a long time for the process to be complete, but that is partly because you were not willing to admit the extent of your offending,” he added.

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