A major wastewater plant owner accused of ignoring tank corrosion that led to a fatal explosion is fighting back with its own photos and a demand for another investigation.
A scathing new report by the government of Gibraltar has laid the blame for the deadly May blast directly on operators of the Nature Port Reception Facility in Gibraltar, which serves the marine industry in the Mediterranean. NPRF is part of the Nature Group, which provides on- and off-shore waste treatment for ships.
Nature Port Reception Facilities Ltd.
|Facility owner Nature Group released these photos of its sullage treatment plant, where an explosion killed a subcontractor employee.|
Capita Symonds / Government of Gibraltar
|Consultants hired by the Gibraltar government to investigate the case released these photos of the same plant. Investigators reported finding more than 60 corrosion-related perforations in the tanks that exploded.|
The accident report, prepared by UK-based consultants Capita Symonds, blames the explosion on dozens of corrosion perforations in the roof of two tanks that allowed flammable vapors to escape.
The vapors were ignited by an unsuspecting welder, Pedro Zambrano Lopez, 40, and his co-worker, who were working unsupervised for a subcontractor. Lopez was killed in the explosion; the other worker suffered injuries and burns, but survived.
The Gibraltar government suspended the plant’s license after the explosion.
The report is replete with photos showing tanks chewed through by pockets of corrosion. Capita Symonds said one tank had more than 20 such perforations; the other had more than 40. The damage would have developed over many years, the report said.
The report accuses Nature of a series of significant lapses in the plant’s operation, including:
• Failure to repair corrosion perforations that had been identified on the roofs of both tanks;
• Failure to manage contractors who were welding on the site, and allowing the men to work without their supervisor;
• “A number of significant departures from a sound health and safety management system expected of any organization operating a potentially hazardous plant such as this”;
• Failure to act on recommendations relating to the upkeep and maintenance of the plant; and
• Lack of transparency in the vetting process to ensure that subcontractors worked safely.
“The main conclusion reached is that prior to the explosions and fire on 31 May 2011, the integrity of the both tanks would have been breached by many corrosion-related perforations in the roof structure and that neither tank would have been hermetically tight,” the report said.
Hot Work Authorized?
The investigators also looked at whether the welders, who worked for Spanish contractor Surmeyca, had been given clearance to carry out hot work on top of the tank.
Nature said in court documents that the two men had been working without permission, but Surmeyca later denied this and said the work had been carried out with Nature’s express permission.
Capita Symonds was unable to resolve the issue.
“My investigation is unable to verify at this time if any risk assessments were carried out at the site on the day of the incident,” wrote investigator Mike Welham, adding: “I have seen no evidence provided that a hot work permit was provided for welding on the roof of Tank 1 prior to the incident.”
Several months before the explosion, the company sought to dramatically expand the plant’s operation. The report, however, questions whether the plant should be allowed to continue operation at all.
The Gibraltar government is reserving judgment.
“In the light of these findings, the suspension of Nature Port’s license will not be lifted until a final decision is taken with regard to that license after due process has been followed and all the material facts and issues considered,” the government said in a statement.
Operator Demands Probe
Nature, which is suing the government over its license suspension, has slammed the Capita Symonds report as “flawed” and has called for a public inquiry.
In a release titled “Nature Demands the Whole Truth,” the company criticized the emergency response to the explosion.
“The response to the accident was sub-standard and resulted in a fire which should have been promptly extinguished to one which blazed unnecessarily for hours and caused pollution,” the company said.
The company said it had obtained two reports, “including one from renowned international Emergency Management Consultant Joe Bishop, who has concluded that there were serious failings on the part of the port and emergency services.”
Nature also criticized the Capita Symonds analysis as a “private report” that lacked the credibility and authority of one prepared by “an independent tribunal.”
In contrast to the Capita Symonds photos of the plant, Darren P. Laguea, Nature Group Managing Director, provided PaintSquare News with dozens of plant photos that he said were taken in the months before the explosion.
The photos “clearly don’t support the claims or intentions of the Government to discredit Nature for its investment in the last 5 years and running of the plant,” Laguea wrote in an email.
Nature said that none of its local directors, including Laguea, had been interviewed by Capita Symonds and that its own review of safety protocols at the plant found procedures were in place, though there was “room for improvement.”
Nature has called for “a full, independent public inquiry into the explosion and the way in which it was handled.”
“We are prepared to face up to our responsibilities in this sad affair but demand the authorities do the same,” the company said, “and publishing reports which fail to tell both sides of the story is not the way to achieve this.”