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Oil and gas firms branded ‘direct threat’ to Inverness residents after safety breaches

By Ally Tibbitt

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Exolum Pipeline System Limited manages a fuel oil storage site in the Longman Industrial Estate.
Exolum Pipeline System Limited manages a fuel oil storage site in the Longman Industrial Estate.

Two companies that run fuel storage sites close to Inverness city centre have been rapped by a government watchdog after they were found to be in breach of safety laws designed to prevent major accidents.

The sites must meet special safety rules designed to reduce the chances of a significant explosion or pollution incident because they store large quantities of oil and gas.

A Highland MSP warned the safety failures were a “a direct threat to staff, contractors, firefighters and the people of Inverness”.

Exolum Pipeline System Limited manages a fuel oil storage site in the Longman Industrial Estate. The firm was ordered to make a number of improvements in a November 2022 letter sent to the firm by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Officials from the HSE and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), who inspected the area together that month, found that “the site was not complying fully with the law”.

Regulators discovered that safety equipment at the oil storage tanks was badly designed and maintained. Procedures for using it were also unclear.

At one oil storage tank they said there was a risk a supply of specialist fire-fighting foam could run out, with water being used to put out an oil tank fire instead. “When the foam runs out, water will continue to pour onto the tank roof, which could make the fire worse,” warned officials.

In addition, the emergency plan for the site assumed that Inverness-based firefighters would bring extra specialist fire-fighting equipment in the event of an incident, even though “the fire service had not visited or engaged with the site”.

At the time, “it was unclear if they have this equipment”, or whether the local fire service would be able to use it, the letter from HSE said.

Even a “spill kit”, that was to be used in the event of an accident at the storage site, was instead being used as a bin.

There was also no clarity from workers at the site on how warnings for severe weather events, such as floods or storms, were monitored or managed, officials found, and the firm was ordered to provide more information about how it planned to manage significant oil spills.

The Longman Industrial Estate site is part of a UK-wide network of fuel storage sites and 1500km of pipelines operated by Exolum Pipeline System. Ultimately owned by a Spanish parent company, the most recent accounts published by the firm show it paid out more than £25 million in dividends to shareholders.

Elsewhere in Inverness, at a site operated by Calor Gas in Carsegate Road North, HSE officials also identified “several legal breaches”, following a September 2022 inspection.

These included problems with the management of a safety system designed to prevent sparks that could have caused “a fire or explosion”, at the site.

Calor Gas was ordered to improve staff training, security on the site, and to fix damaged hoses that were used for transferring fuel between storage tanks and delivery vehicles as well.

After learning of the legal breaches Highland MSP Ariane Burgess said: "It’s deeply concerning to hear of a series of health and safety failings at oil and gas sites in Inverness.

“Firefighters risk their lives to keep the public safe and it’s vital that all businesses take the safety of their workers and the wider public seriously.

"Failing to ensure basic emergency planning poses a direct threat to staff, contractors, firefighters and the people of Inverness.”

Ariane Burgess.
Ariane Burgess.

Group Commander Bruce Milne of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) confirmed local firefighters had visited both sites since the HSE inspections to gather “operational intelligence”.

He said “SFRS provides guidance and advice” to help make sure companies have appropriate fire precautions in place.

However, he added it was up to the companies themselves to comply with their legal responsibilities.

A HSE spokesperson could not confirm that all the safety issues raised by the watchdog had been addressed by Exolum, despite a March 30, 2023 deadline.

“At Exolum Pipelines System’s Inverness facility, this matter remains open,” they said.

A spokesperson for SEPA said the two watchdogs planned to undertake a further inspection visit later in the year.

“Understanding and complying with environmental obligations is non-negotiable for businesses operating in Scotland," they added.

“The operator [Exolum] was required to address several issues and provide additional information, which both SEPA and HSE have now received.

“A follow-up site inspection has been arranged and this will inform any next steps if required.”

A spokesperson for Exolum said: "The safety and wellbeing of our staff and the communities in which we operate is our absolute priority. We are committed to maintaining high standards at all our sites and work with local and national health, safety and environmental regulators to regularly review our processes.

"We are addressing the points raised by the Health and Safety Executive following their inspection in November 2022 and are implementing the suggested changes."

An HSE spokesperson confirmed that “the matters raised at the intervention on the Calor Gas site at Inverness were resolved to the inspection team’s satisfaction in January 2023”.

A Calor spokesperson said: “We have fully complied with the findings of the HSE following their inspection of our site in Inverness. We take our health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously, the safety of our employees, customers and communities in which we operate is our number one business priority.”

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