Explosion at Chevron refinery

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We are publishing here a brief article from a sympathiser of the ICC regarding the explosion at the Chevron oil refinery.

On the evening of June 2nd an explosion at the Chevron oil refinery at Pembroke dock in West Wales killed 4 workers and another is in hospital with serious injuries. The time it took to indentify the bodies suggests that the unfortunate workers were blown to bits. The following night the BBC reported a “huge” blaze at the Eco-oil storage plant near Kingsnorth power station in Kent. The times of both incidents suggests that the majority of workers, 1400 at Chevron, wouldn’t have been on site. A police spokesman initially called the Pembroke explosion “a tragic industrial accident” which was then changed to a “tragic industrial incident”, and a further statement said that it was “thought not to pose any threat” (from contamination). Incident or accident, one thing for sure is that in Britain, just as elsewhere, capitalism is becoming more and more of a mortal threat to the workers as well as to working class districts close to industrial installations and conurbations. A number of factors will ensure this: the primary one being that capitalism puts profits before lives and working class living and working conditions every time. With the unstoppable development of its economic crisis the ruling class will more and more cut back on safety measures, safety inspections, regular maintenance and the replacement of worn out and dangerous plant. And all this while the usual rot is pronounced about “condolences”, the “inevitability of accidents” and “lessons will be learnt” as one disaster follows another.

The explosion and fire, with the resulting contamination, at the Coryton refinery and depot in Essex in 2007, shows us the way the wind is blowing. Here, 20 health and safety compliance orders are still outstanding from the event, with one very serious safety factor still in the design stage: this will be in place in December 2012, so they say (Thurrock Gazette, 13.5.2011). Along with continuous non-compliance there have been further serious failures at the plant with the latest recorded in January this year. In a 2006 analysis of workplace disasters, Dave Whyte writing in ‘Working disasters’, talks of the “supine collusive ideology that dominates the regulatory landscape”.

Coryton follows the explosion at the Chevron/Total oil facility at Buncefield, Hertfordshire in December 2005 which was called “the largest peace-time fire in Europe” (Wikipedia). It was a fuel-air explosion and the effects of the contamination and the environmental damage remain unknown over five years later. Just like many other instances the state got around the initial contamination of ground water by simply raising the allowed limits of contaminants allowed in drinking water (Hemel Hempstead Today May 2006). The explosion, similar in effect to the fuel-air bombs used in the first Iraq War, registered on the Richter scale and occurred early on a Sunday morning. Had it happened while the plant was fully manned the casualties would have been far worse than the 42 injured. A year later all of the fire stations that were first to respond to the Buncefield blaze (and praised by Tony Blair at the time as “great public servants”) were facing closure and cuts in manpower (Guardian, 12.5.2006).

A similar fuel-air explosion happened at the Flixborough chemical plant near Scunthorpe in 1974. Again this occurred at the weekend and killed 18 workers; had it happened on a working day most, if not all, of the 500 workers would have been incinerated.

And this after “lessons would be learnt” from the still shocking case of the Piper Alpha explosion on a North Sea oil rig, when 167 of the 226 workers on board were killed in the most horrific circumstances in summer 1988. Here again HSE enforcement and improvement notices are ignored or strung out, while scores of workers have been killed in the North Sea oil industry over the subsequent 20 odd years and workers are intimidated or dismissed without cause or comeback and are blacklisted as “troublemakers” if they make any sort of fuss about safety issues. And as Whyte says above, the “collusive ideology” runs through the companies, the HSE and the unions. Twenty years after Piper Alpha the HSE found 50% of platforms had “poor” safety conditions and there was a 15 thousand hour backlog of “critical safety issues” to be put in place.

The Coalition government has shown that it will follow Labour and the Tories in complicity around the threats to workers’ lives and giving the green light to unsafe, cost-cutting procedures. Recent budget cuts show that the 98 North Sea off-shore inspectors have been reduced to 83 at the turn of this year (Hazards no. 113). Companies’ safety procedures are to remain secret and no-one, except top management officials can have full access to these documents. Throughout the whole oil industry, as pipework corrodes, oxidises and remains unreplaced, as valves and connections become more vulnerable to dysfunction and decay, maintenance is being cut, safety measures are subverted and cut, vital components are overlooked; and while company and union lawyers get rich over claim and counter-claim, workers are more and more put at risk. The coming budget cuts along with the already existing primacy of profits and secondary concern for workers’ lives and wellbeing will ensure that these explosive risks to the working class become ever greater.

Baboon. June 7th 2011