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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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Pembroke Dock man caught up in Windrush problem

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A MEMBER of the Windrush generation who spent twelve years in Pembroke Dock has been told he is living in the UK illegally.

Whitfield Francis, 59, moved to Britain when he was seven years old, later living and working in Pembroke Dock, where family still live.

The Windrush generation refers to migrants from the Caribbean members of the Commonwealth, who arrived in response to post-war labour shortages.

This classification lasted until the 1971 Immigration Act, when Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain.

The name is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on June 22 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago amongst other islands.

Francis said how he moved from Jamaica as a child, and whilst he has relatives there, he is a ‘stranger to Jamaica’.

The pressure on placed him has left him living ‘a stressful life’ and he went on to say: “I can’t get a job because I haven’t got the paperwork.”

The PM and the Opposition have clashed in the House of Commons after the Windrush generation were told they are residing in Britain illegally, despite living and working in the UK for decades.

Issues in proving otherwise stem from the fact that landing cards of the original migration were destroyed in 2010, despite being used by the subsequent generations to prove they had a right to remain in the UK.

Most recently Mr Francis has been ‘sofa surfing’ between Pembroke Dock and his sister’s house in Birmingham where he hopes to get work, yet he is in need of a biometric card first, which will mean proving he is entitled to work in the UK.

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MP visits Central America on trade envoy mission

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Simon Hart MP: With President of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina

SIMON HART MP has visited Panama, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica to encourage trade links with Wales and the UK in his new role as the UKs’ first trade envoy to the area.

Whilst in Central America he met the Presidents of all three countries and joined the British ambassador in hosting receptions for businesses interested in trading with the UK.

As trade envoy his role is to facilitate and negotiate trade relations and marketing interests between the three countries and the United Kingdom. 

The UK is the fourth largest investor in Panama, with $2.6bn spent there in 2016.  Many UK companies – in more than a dozen sectors – have their regional offices in Panama and the number one export from the UK to the area is alcoholic spirits.

“All three countries love their whisky in particular which is why I took each president a bottle of Penderyn whisky from Wales to introduce them to the product,” explained Mr Hart.

The Panamanian President, Juan Carlos Varela, announced Simon Hart’s arrival via his personal twitter: “We talked about the opportunities to strengthen the trade ties between Panama and the United Kingdom.”

As well as President Varela, Mr Hart also met British companies with an already established presence in Panama and visited the Miraflores Lock of the Panama Canal.

Mr Hart added: “My position as trade envoy to Panama was met with great hospitality and sincerity by all, it was a fascinating tour and I hope that it will result in closer trading links between our countries.”

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Local student wins writing competition

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Imogen Grimes, Hope Raymond, and Will Letten: With members of Saundersfoot Rotary Club

WILL LETTEN of Castle School successfully secured his place in the next round of this year’s Rotary Young Writers Competition against stiff opposition.

The judges from the Rotary Club of Saundersfoot were impressed by his story and the novel way in which he cleverly made sure it worked with this year’s theme – ‘A Different Perspective’.

Pupils from the local area were invited to enter and tasked to produce a piece of writing of no more than 500 words on any subject of their choosing. It could be fiction or non-fiction, a story or a poem. The only requirement was that it must relate to the theme.

Members of the club were fascinated by the variety of stories produced. Topics included the impact of humans on the environment, the ticking of a clock and the battle between wild animals.

They told us: “We know the children from Castle School put a lot of effort into their entries so it’s always difficult to choose a winner. And of course, creative writing is subjective.”

They were, however, intrigued to read Will’s take on the not-so opposing views of two soldiers from either side of no-man’s land during the first world war.

Will was surprised and excited to have won in the Intermediate age-group and told us: “I am very interested in everything about World War One. There is a lot about that time in the news at the moment, because of the centenary but for me it’s about an event that changed the course of history. I was particularly inspired by the tale of ordinary men in both the English and German trenches who held a temporary truce on Christmas Day to play a game of football.”

One of the judges, Jim Ball, commented that it reminded him of conversations he had shared with his one of his grandfathers, a WWI veteran and his recurring memories of the horror of war and of the casualties, both those who had fallen and those lucky enough to survive. This, he reflected, was in stark contrast to his other grandfather who had chosen never to raise the subject again.

Imogen Grimes and Hope Raymond were also picked out for their entries in the same age-group and, so difficult was it to choose between them, the judges decided to award two runner-up prizes.

Imogen was also surprised to win.

She told us: “I wrote about aliens coming to earth because I wanted to write something light-hearted. I wrote about humans from their perspective, making them out to be very judgemental, believing themselves to be a superior race and shocked by the damage we were doing to our own planet.”

The judges clearly agreed.

Mr Ball told us: “It was full of humour and made me laugh!”

In contrast, he felt that Hope’s poem was very moving and thoughtful. She had approached her chosen subject from a very different point of view, dealing with the way in which people cruelly regard others who are different from them.

Hope explained: “I feel very strongly that people who may appear ‘different’, perhaps having mental health issues. Often, they are misjudged and ignored or ill-treated and I think this is very wrong. I wanted to write a poem that challenged many people’s preconceptions about mental illness and to make them realise that they should be more sympathetic and supportive and not dismissive.”

Will now goes through to represent the region in Cardiff. Although judging is already in progress, he won’t find out the results until June 21, when the prizes are awarded in Cardiff. If successful, he will then go on to represent the country in the national finals which will take place later in the year in London.

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