A series of explosions have ripped apart Buncefield oil terminal near London, near junction 8 on the M1 motorway, which has been closed in both directions. A column of flames and thick black smoke is shooting hundreds of metres into the sky.
Buncefield depot services Luton and Heathrow airports, and is one of Britain’s biggest fuel storage facilities. It is operated by Total and part-owned by Texaco, directly connected by pipeline to Linsey oil refinery and Heathrow. Structural damage is widespread in the surrounding industrial estate, with reports at least one building has collapsed. Many local residents in Hemel Hempstead have left their homes in shock. Some homes have been damaged.
Police say 36 people have been slightly hurt, two more seriously. They say they are currently working on the assumption that this is an industrial accident. Luton airport is managing to operate normally. The blasts were felt 60 kilometres away, and heard as far away as Surrey and Norfolk. The fire is now burning out of control, and could last for days with further explosions expected.
Security guards on duty reported smelling gas before the explosion, and there is now an overpowering smell of petrol and aviation fuel in the area. Police and rescue workers are being called in from weekend leave to cope with what is clearly a major incident, with emergency services from outside Hertfordshire coming into the area to assist in the emergency operation.
The depot is also a major supplier of fuel and gas to the entire south-east of England, and it appears none of the storage tanks in the plant have survived unscathed. The site contains 20 fuel tanks which can hold over 13.5 million litres of fuel each.
Now the worries are focusing on atmospheric pollution and health risks from the enormous cloud of smoke hanging over the area. Cold weather means the smoke to staying closer to the ground, and if it rains the situation will worsen. There is also a risk that unburnt fuel could leak into the water table.