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Water Recycling Plant Explosion Kills 4

Friday, December 11, 2020

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Last Thursday (Dec. 4), a large explosion was reported to have taken place at the Avonmouth, Bristol-based Wessex Water plant, a water supply and sewerage utility company serving an area of South West England.

As a result of the blast, four people reportedly died at the scene, while another individual experienced non-lethal injuries.

What Happened

According to reports, firefighters were called to Wessex Water's premises at roughly 11:20 GMT after an explosion was reported within a chemical tank containing treated biosolids. The biosolids, or “treated sludge,” are a by-product of the sewage treatment process, which are treated within anaerobic digesters—oxygen-free tanks—to produce agricultural fertilizer and renewable energy.

Local witnesses of the blast reported hearing a "very loud explosion" that "shook buildings.”

While local fire service led the rescue operations, four fatalities were reported at the scene, including three plant workers—one a 16-year-old apprentice—and one contractor.

Emergency services were called to the site yesterday morning

Posted by Bristol.Live on Thursday, December 3, 2020

Bristol City Councilor Jo Sergeant called the incident an “utter tragedy” and called out safety regulators to better tackle the self-regulation culture in order to avoid further loss of life and reduce the negative impacts on nearby communities.

Prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive declined sharply last year as a result of budget cuts, however, earlier this year Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised more funding so that the organization could carry out "spot inspections.”

“Obviously, we don’t know, we don’t have all the information yet, and I don’t want to appear to be pointing fingers at anyone, but there is a real underlying concern about the culture of self-regulation and I feel it is really important to put on record that we need to get our regulators’ teeth back in so that they can actually proactively regulate all our businesses,” said Sergeant.

In a statement, Sergeant continued, “As a representative of Bristol residential communities adjacent to the Avonmouth and Severnside Enterprise Area (ASEA), I must also express concern about the number of incidents that have occurred over the years and their impact on local residents. Dust, flies, smells, fires, explosions and this most recent event, along with higher rates of Covid, have taken their toll on my ward residents, particularly in the localities of Lawrence Weston and Avonmouth.

“It is recognized that the Avonmouth and Severnside is a crucial economic driver for the City of Bristol and the West of England region. It is also accepted that waste management (including water treatment) is an absolute necessity and has to be conducted somewhere.”

Sergeant concluded her statement to Bristol City Council by asking local and regional authorities to lobby the U.K. Government to increase resources and power to the country’s monitoring officers, the Environment Agency, the Health & Safety Executive and any other relevant regulatory bodies.

Launched Investigation, Possible Causes

An investigation has since been launched following the incident. Colin Skellett, Chief Executive of Wessex Water, reported that the company is working with the HSE as part of the investigation, adding that the company's "thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of those involved."

Avon and Somerset Police are also leading a joint inquiry with the HSE to look into the deaths. The investigation is being headed by a team of chemical and mechanical experts and is expected to take several days, although a cordon was removed from the site this past Tuesday, Dec. 8.

According to explosion hazard experts Tony Ennis and Professor Clifford Jones, a visiting professor from the University of Chester, the blast appears to be the result of a catastrophic build-up of pressure in an anaerobic digester, which produces methane gas as it processes waste materials.

“The explosion appears to have taken place in a silo which stores the output from an anaerobic digester,” said Ennis. Adding that the workers were likely on top of one of the storage tanks where the produced sludge is kept prior to disposal.

However, although the precise trigger of the explosion is still unknown, Ennis suggests that a spark or hot surface could have ignited the methane gas that collected in the head space at the top of the tank.

“Depending on the amount of methane, the pressure developed in the tank could be up to 8 bar. Pressure in a car tire is 2-2.5 bar. The tank is not designed for this pressure and appears to have failed catastrophically at the joint between the roof and cylindrical shell.”

Since the incident, more than 143,000 pounds has been donated to a crowdfunding page set up by Wessex Water to support the families of the four workers. A separate fundraiser started by Stoke Lane Football Club has raised more than 15,000 pounds toward funeral costs.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Latin America; North America; Program/Project Management; Safety; Wastewater Plants; Water/Wastewater; Z-Continents

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