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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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Health board statement on ’20-year journey’ in full

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THIS is the full statement from Chief Executive Steve Moore of  Hywel Dda University Health Board following the extraordinary meeting on Wednesday (Sept 26) at County Hall, Carmarthen:

 

HEALTH BOARD STATEMENT

Hywel Dda University Health Board will embark on an ambitious 20-year journey to transform the way we receive health care and support in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and borders, it was decided at a public board meeting.

Twelve recommendations from clinicians (doctors, nurses and a range of healthcare professionals such as health scientists and therapists) were approved and can be read in full here https://bit.ly/2NJxft5.

Headline decisions included:

  • more investment will be made in the integration of social care with health and well-being across the seven localities (north and south Ceredigion, north and south Pembrokeshire, Taf/Tywi, Amman/Gwendraeth and Llanelli)
  • a hospital model, will be adopted and includes:
    • a business case to be made for a new hospital in the south of Hywel Dda (somewhere between Narberth and St Clears) to provide specialist urgent and emergency care services and planned care
    • hospital services to be retained and developed at Bronglais Hospital, Aberystwyth, in-line with the Mid Wales Joint Health & Social Care Committee recognising importance of hospital in delivery of services to populations of Ceredigion, Powys and South Gwynedd
    • acute medicine (hospital services that need medical input) to be retained at Prince Philip Hospital, Llanelli, following recent modernisation of services developed with the local community and serving a densely populated area
    • re-purposing Glangwili (Carmarthen) and Withybush (Haverfordwest) hospitals to support community health needs including overnight beds, day case procedures, out-patient and walk-in services such as minor injuries and much more

This follows one of the largest local NHS consultations in the UK (Hywel Dda Our Big NHS Change), which was held between April and July, and which saw a huge and passionate response from the local population. Responses included more than 5,400 questionnaires, 4,000 attendees at events and workshops, hundreds of written submissions, five petitions and extensive social media debate.

Board members considered all they heard from patients, staff, the general public and interested organisations, not just during the consultation, but also in the pre-consultation engagement and option development period.

They also considered recommendations made by Hywel Dda Community Health Council, the clinical viewpoint following consultation, and other matters including safety standards the NHS has to meet and the ability to provide services in the future.

Whilst some key decisions were made, the health board received really insightful feedback from people during the consultation and wants to investigate further, and demonstrate, some developments, including:

  • commitment to work with people and organisations to develop integrated networks (as opposed to hubs) which are unique to the needs of their community and to consider the geographical areas highlighted in the consultation as gaps in current provision
  • work with the community on an early model of the above in Pembrokeshire, focusing on the ability to provide more community based care 24/7 and to demonstrate how it could work and the impact it could have
  • work with local people to explore potential for a range of different types of beds within the local community – whether in existing community hospitals, at home or another setting review, test and challenge the model for acute medicine to be responsive to demand and changes in patient flows associated with the whole system change
  • work closely with Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board on services where patients could benefit from a regional approach
  • examine the opportunities a new hospital and community model could offer maternity and child health services to ensure doctor and midwifery led care, and care for children (paediatrics) and sick babies (neonatal) are maintained within the boundaries of the Hywel Dda area
  • align with the transformation work in mental health services to ensure mental health and learning disability assessment and treatment units are provided at the new urgent and planned care hospital
  • investigate the practicalities and impacts (through a feasibility study and options appraisal) of locations between Narberth and St Clears for the new hospital
  • work with people living and working in the areas furthest from a new hospital to provide additional support for emergency and urgent care (potential to look at things like placing paramedics within in a community as opposed to within a vehicle)
  • respond to public anxiety over the ability to manage emergency conditions that are time sensitive (e.g. ST Elevation Myocardial Infarction STEMI, stroke and sepsis) consider the opportunities a new hospital in the south would provide Bronglais Hospital
  • work closely with other organisations, including county councils and the third sector, to develop Glangwili and Withybush hospitals
  • develop a detailed plan to address concern heard in consultation regarding access, travel, transport and infrastructure, working with the Regional Transport Group, communities (including those with protected characteristics in response to the difficulties we heard about from people and the equality impact assessment) and Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust
  • formally state the Health Board’s support for building a case for provision of a 24/7 service to bring medics to the scene of an accident (e.g. the Emergency Medical Retrieval Transport Service, which operates 12 hours a day and CHANTS (Neonatal Retrieval Service))
  • develop a plan to maximise use of technology in health and care, backed up by secure IT so patient data is safe and joined up between services in the hospital and community
  • put in place a staff plan to deliver future models and provide opportunities for staff
  • work with education and university partners to train a workforce with the skills and expertise to work in the new service model, and drive research, innovation and evaluation into our service development
  • continue to talk the public, staff and interested organisation about all that we do, especially focusing on people with protected characteristics

Chief Executive Steve Moore said: “Today is a hugely momentous day as we confirm we will take a new direction to providing much more preventative and community based healthcare to our population. We’ve heard the concern people have with current healthcare provision and our ability to deliver this sea-change in the years to come but our clinicians have led this work and we believe what has been put before us today offers us the best chance to deal with the fragility our NHS faces and to provide the population with safe, effective care that meets their needs.”

Chair Bernardine Rees added: “We are really grateful to everyone who got involved in our consultation as it has given us really rich feedback. Our ambition is to continue that conversation and input so that we can grow services in our seven localities, using schemes we have already delivered, such as the front of house project at Prince Philip Hospital and Tenby walk-in, as the basis of what can be achieved.”

The next step will be for clinicians and staff to work with the public and other organisations to bring the additional detail together into a draft Health Strategy to put before public Health Board at the end of November.

Medical Director and Director of Clinical Strategy Dr Philip Kloer said: “We’re aware that some people, particularly those who live furthest from the new hospital zone between Narberth and St Clears may be anxious about these changes. They will not happen overnight and we are committed to working with those communities and our partners to demonstrate and test what additional provision can be made, particularly for time-sensitive emergency conditions.

“For example we are working with partners to build the case for the Emergency Medical Retrieval Team (doctors who are brought to the scene to treat and then transfer) and CHANTS (the Neonatal Retrieval Team) to be a 24-hour service, and also investigating the potential to place advanced paramedics in communities so they are available solely to that community.

“Another important factor in providing life-saving treatment is getting people quickly to the definitive hospital which will provide their care. At the moment, people in our coastal areas of Pembrokeshire have to travel to Glangwili for some treatment, which in the future, we will be able to offer at a more equitable location, for the south of Hywel Dda, in the new hospital zone.”

The new hospital will be dependent also on a full business case, which will be made to the Welsh Government.

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Pembroke Dock: Future uncertain for Catholic primary school

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THE HERALD understands that the governing body of St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, Pembroke Dock, is commencing a period of consultation on the future of the school. It has consulted with the trustees of the Diocese of Menevia on the governing body’s proposal to close the school permanently from April 2019 and has received their agreement to take the next steps in this process.

Parents were outside the school gates on Wednesday to demand answers, and say they are organising a meeting at the school on Friday (Sep 28)

The governers released a statement which reads: “As the school is a voluntary aided school, the proposal to consider it for closure has to be agreed by the GB and the trustees of the Diocese. However, the governing body has asked the Local Authority to provide support from officers to ensure that the requirements of the statutory consultation process are met and this will be discussed at the next meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council on October 11.

“The next stage of the process is the publishing of a consultation document with detailed information on the school which will be widely available and comments will be invited from members of the public and organisations including the Diocese and Local Authority. These comments will be considered by the GB prior to it making a final decision on the school’s future.”

A spokesperson commented “The decision has been made with great sadness, but it was felt to be the only one left to governors for a variety of reasons.

“There has been a dramatic fall in the school’s roll in recent years and we now have only 32 full time pupils at the school.

“There has been a significant drop in Catholic baptisms in the local area, reducing demand for places and the low numbers have called into question the financial viability of the school.”

A spokesperson for the Diocesan Director of Education commented “The Trustees of the Diocese of Menevia have accepted the GB’s decision with a heavy heart, and has urged all parties to work together to ensure continuity of access to Catholic education for any child whose parent desires it.

“The governing body will work towards this with the Diocese and Local Authority and to safeguard so far as possible, the employment of all those members of staff affected.”

The GB has been assured that there is sufficient capacity in other local schools to secure alternative places for the school’s pupils.

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Withybush downgrade ‘is a kick in the teeth’ for Pembrokeshire

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NEWS that Withybush General Hospital is to be downgraded has already started to attract criticism from politicians.

One of the first to react was  Stephen Crabb MP, who told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “Today’s announcement makes a mockery of consulting the public, but it is hardly surprising. It is another kick in the teeth for the people of Pembrokeshire. We have been through these consultations before and at every turn the views of local people get ignored. The biggest response to the West Wales consultation came from here in Pembrokeshire precisely because it is the area that loses out the most from all the options the Health Board put forward.

“The decision to keep a full hospital at Llanelli looks very political. It fits with the big plan that Welsh Government in Cardiff have been pushing for the last ten years which is to reduce and centralise services further east.

“If the long-term plan is to build a new hospital then we need some cast iron commitments from Welsh Government over funding and location and a promise not to reduce any more services at Withybush until that new facility is open and functioning.”

Paul Davies AM added: “I’m extremely angry and disappointed that following an extensive public consultation, Hywel Dda University Health Board has simply ignored the views of the people of Pembrokeshire. It is unacceptable that Withybush hospital will be downgraded and that patients will have to travel further for essential treatments and services.

“This is a very dark day for the people of Pembrokeshire, who have seen health services constantly centralised away in recent years. The Welsh Government has a duty to ensure all parts of Wales have access to essential health services and so it must take a stand against Hywel Dda University Health Board and act now – before it’s too late.”

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