Safety fears mean that the Buncefield oil terminal in Hemel Hempstead may never be rebuilt. That’s the view of both the Petrol Retailers’ Association (PRA) and the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA). PRA director Ray Holloway said: “It seems unlikely that Buncefield will ever be rebuilt as it was – its proximity to the developed area around the depot means that the planning authority and safety officers will probably resist any plans to rebuild.”

Nick Vandervell, spokesman for UKPIA, agreed: “You have to remember that Buncefield was built nearly 40 years ago and the local authorities allowed planning consent thinking that terminals don’t usually pose a risk – and they don’t. However oil terminals need to be near the major conurbations they are serving, which is why Buncefield is near the M1 and Heathrow.”

The fact that the fire occurred early on a Sunday morning limited casualties, but had it happened on a normal working day, the consequences could have been catastrophic. Already local residents are voicing their concern about a possible rebuild. Any decision to rebuild is a long way off as the Health & Safety Executive is still investigating the blaze. The organisation has promised to deliver its initial findings as soon as possible – the industry is hoping this means within weeks rather than months.

Meanwhile speculation continues about the cause of the fire. Reports in the national media point to a tanker driver using his engine cut-off switch during a vapour leak seconds before the explosion. But Vandervell is sceptical: “I think it’s quite clear from photos we’ve seen that the fire started not in the loading area but in the main tank area.”

However Holloway is doubtful that we’ll ever learn the truth about the cause. “Unquestionably, safety detection equipment for gas and/or liquid management failed to function correctly or at all, and that must be a major concern for Total, as depot operators. So far, it’s not known whether other depots with similar facilities will be required to make changes or face closure.”  

Currently there is no official figure for how much oil went up in flames but 35 million litres of oil is being touted. Holloway said operators were lucky that relatively few delivery vehicles were affected. “Not all oil companies using Buncefield were affected to the same degree,” he said. “Contingency plans required complicated arrangements and the

relocation of vehicles and their drivers to other depots was not as simple as it seemed. Inadequate availability of oil products and rack loading times at other depots undoubtedly caused ‘stock outs’ at forecourts in the lead up to Christmas, and afterwards. Some suppliers allowed retailers to purchase fuel from other sources but others were less sympathetic to the problems being experienced by retailers.”

There were supply problems which were compounded by Christmas and the annual upsurge in demand for fuel. Vandervell said operators had coped quite well, with tankers deployed to other depots to ease supply problems although this meant longer travelling times.

Ray Holloway said events at Buncefield posed a serious question about the long-term options for supply, storage and delivery of motor fuels in the UK: “You have to ask whether the sharing arrangements used by the oil companies are still suitable to cater for market demand in all areas. And are these agreements in the public and industry interest or are they a barrier to beneficial change? Will the business of oil suppliers be changed when the incident has been fully investigated and understood; undoubtedly.”