Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Heathrow fuel leak, could contaminate rivers

Heathrow Airport's website has a section entitled 'Heathrow and the Local Environment'. It's not very informative, there are just a few paragraphs on the airport's goals and procedures on environmental impacts including air quality, waste and biodiversity. The water page states that 'Ensuring that the quality of water that runs off our airport complies with environmental standards is of great importance', goes on to assure that 'Water quality at Heathrow is managed by closely monitoring the levels and substances in water' then states a commitment to 'secure protection of the environment at all times through a responsible and proactive approach to water quality management, and to ensure 100% regulatory compliance in all aspects of water quality management now and in the future.'

The airport has failed to meet these legal obligations. On 24th September 2010 Heathrow Hydrant Operating Company Limited (HHOpCo), a fuel supplier to Heathrow, was fined for 'severely polluting groundwater' in the Taplow Gravels underneath the airport, from a leak in a pipeline which was discovered nearly three years ago. HHOpCo reported the leak to the Environment Agency on 29th November 2007. Two bolts on the side of a valve in the supply pipeline to aircraft stands at Heathrow's Terminal 1 had eroded. The valve had been leaking for some time, but it is not known how long. A £7 million leak detection system had been malfunctioning at the time of the leak, and the company failed to install a manual leak detection system in its place. The investigation revealed that the automated leak detection system had not been working for five months. HHOpCo failed to notify the Environment Agency immediately. The firm had discovered the leak nine days earlier, following an unrelated report from BAA of jet fuel odour in a nearby access tunnel. If it were not for this, the leak may have continued undetected.

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The total volume of fuel that was lost is not known. At the time the leak was discovered the pipeline was losing about 7 litres of jet fuel per minute. Boreholes were sunk to extract the fuel and by June 2010 at least 139,391 litres had been recovered. At the time the fine was imposed, between 70 and 100 litres of fuel per week were still being recovered. HHOpCo was fined £40,000 plus Environment Agency costs of approximately £14,000 for this catalogue of failures. The Environment Agency lead officer noted 'extensive pollution of groundwater' but stated that 'Fortunately, to date, we have not seen any major impact to local rivers but jet fuel in groundwater has the potential to seriously harm the environment and water quality'. But contamination from underground fuel leaks is long term, and can slowly permeate into the water table. Under UK safety regulations, jet fuel is categorised among the most toxic hazardous substances, which must be prevented from entering groundwater. The aquifer in the Taplow Gravels groundwater which has been polluted is a source of water to four rivers, the River Crane, the River Colne, Duke of Northumberland’s River and the Longford River. The direction of the flow of groundwater from the site of the incident has yet to be determines, so it is not known which of these rivers might be at risk of contamination. 

BAA, operator of Heathrow, claimed that Heathrow, the biggest airport in the UK, was on its way back to 'its rightful status as the world's leading international airport' when the new Terminal 5 opened in March 2008. Terminal 5 may be swanky looking with a curved roof and packed with posh shops like Tiffany's, gourmet restaurants, whimsical art works and sculptures, and clean water gushing out of fountains on the concourse. But these are superficial distractions from the essential infrastructure which enables the flights. In 2005, Air BP was enthusing about how Terminal 5 Boeing 747s would be refuelled at 7,500 litres per minute, and Airbus A380s at 8,000 litres per minute.

Heathrow Airport's fuel storage and distribution facility, known as a 'fuel farm', is directly above the tunnel through which passenger baggage is transferred between terminals, with a capacity of 4 million litres. The entire fuel supply chain from oilfields through refineries, storage depots, pipelines and tankers to airport brings risks of pollution and fire. In December 2005 an explosion at the Buncefield fuel depot over 30 kilometres north of Heathrow Airport resulted in a fire which raged for five days. At the time of the accident, Buncefield supplied about half of the 21 million litres of fuel used by Heathrow per day. 2,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and 43 people were injured. At the time of the explosion Buncefield held 35 million litres of fuel, mostly aviation fuel and petrol for vehicles. About a third of this fuel was lost during the incident, most of it consumed in the fire. The Buncefield fire was the biggest in peacetime Europe. 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from a tank and ignited, other tanks caught fire including Tank 12, the largest, which had storage capacity for 19 million litres of aviation fuel. The explosion was audible from over 200 kilometres way and the plumes were visible from space. If the accident had not occurred on a Sunday morning with few people on the site, it would have been highly likely to result in fatalities.

In June 2010 a lengthy and complex corporate criminal trial concluded with five firms found guilty of safety breaches in relation to the Buncefield accident. Total, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, British Pipeline Agency, Motherwell Control Systems and TAV Engineering were fined a total of £5.5 million. The fine is derisory as the cost of the accident was estimated at £1 billion. This encompasses costs of the emergency response and the investigation, costs to the aviation sector, and costs to local businesses were about £70 million with a few companies forced into liquidation. Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HSOL) in particular was singled out for criticism, for failing to prevent the accident and limit the effects. At the time of the accident Total owned a 60 per cent stake HOSL. The Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency said in a statement: "The scale of the explosion and fire at Buncefield was immense and it was miraculous that nobody died. Unless the high hazard industries truly learn the lessons, we may not be that fortunate in future."
You'd assume that Heathrow would tighten up its systems to ensure an impeccable fire record after this serious incident. Yet in 2009 there were two fires at the airport. In April a small fire broke out in the control tower. Then, in July, a significant portion of a Servisair warehouse building caught fire. Servisair provides ground services, and the fire is believed to have started when a gas cylinder exploded. A 400 metre exclusion zone was imposed, and 200 people were evacuated. The operation to extinguish the fire required 100 firefighters and 20 fire engines. Plumes of smoke could be seen nearly 10 kilometres way.

Other parts of the UK have seen recent failures in the aviation fuel supply chain. On 27th January 2009 a freight train carrying fuel to Glasgow Prestwick Airport collided with a pylon while crossing a bridge less than a kilometre south of the Ayrshire town of Stewarton. Six wagons derailed and some fuel caught fire, plumes of back smoke over 15 metres high billowing over the town. In April 2007, nearly 164,000 litres of jet fuel leaked from a pipeline at Mildenhall air base in Suffolk, which was punctured during a drilling operation. A layer of chalk less than a metre below the airfield surface was contaminated, and fuel came to the surface and flowed onto a grass area. The Environment Agency feared jet fuel might pollute a drinking water borehole, but fortunately it did not spread that far. On 30th June 2010 safety at Total's UK aviation related operations failed again. A worker was killed in a fire at Total's Lindsey oil refinery in Humberside, by a fire which started when crude oil that was being processed into jet fuel ignited. 

The British fly more per capita than any other country on earth, and in early days of the LibCon coalition government, Rt Hon Theresa Villiers, Minister of State for Transport, talked of 'better, not bigger' airports. Yet many UK airports continue their expansion plans. Airport Watch is keeping track of airport expansion around the country. Instead of concreting over green space with extending runways, the priority should be ensuring that the safety of essential infrastructure is in order.

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