UK chemical company fined $5 million after release of fatal toxic vapour cloud
On November 8, Cristal Pigment UK was sentenced to fines of £3 million for criminal breaches of health and safety regulations after its “high level of dereliction of duty” led to the death of a workman and life-changing injuries to another. Both men were overcome by a toxic vapour cloud at its Stallingborough plant in Grimsby in 2010, and a similar vapour release took place in 2011.
Hull Crown Court heard that in the early hours of the 5 March 2010 there was a build-up of Titanium Tetrachloride within a vessel at the Cristal Global site, formerly known as Millennium Chemicals. The chemical came into contact with water creating a violent reaction, which ruptured the vessel. The liquid then came into contact with the air, creating a large toxic vapour cloud.
One worker Paul Doyley, 48, was showered with the corrosive liquid and blanketed by the rapidly expanding toxic vapour cloud, he died on 18 March 2010 from his injuries. His colleague Ron Ingoldby was also covered by the dense cloud, surviving his injuries but with irreversible lung damage.
The large poisonous vapour cloud rapidly expanded to several metres in height and poured out from the site as a thick, dense white cloud. The wind blew the cloud out across the river Humber and closed down shipping lanes for several hours, until the incident was eventually brought under control by Humberside Fire and Rescue Service.
The investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company had deviated from the normal operating procedures, which led to the dangerous build-up of the chemical. Parts of the plant and its procedures were poorly designed and the company had not established robust safety management procedures and systems of work to assess and control risk and to ensure that these were actually followed.
The following year, on 27 July 2011, there was another uncontrolled release of a toxic vapour during the cleaning of a redundant vessel.
The vessel, which is normally connected to the chemical production plant, was being replaced. The old vessel was removed and stored, for around three-years, with a number of tonnes of residual Titanium Tetrachloride.
The Health and Safety Executive’s investigation found that the company made the decision to clean the vessel. The company poorly managed the design and installation of fabricated plates to seal the vessel before carrying out the cleaning process. The plates were incompatible, incorrectly designed and used inappropriate sealants that could not contain the gas created during the procedure, releasing a toxic vapour cloud.
Cristal Pigment UK Ltd of Stallingborough pleaded guilty to the following charges: Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, for the 2010 incident and also Regulation 4 of the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1999 for the 2011 incident. The company was fined £1.8 million and £600,000 for charges associated with the incident on 5 March 2010 and fined £600,000 for the charge associated with the incident on 27 July 2011 with costs of £37,868.00.
After the hearing, HSE inspector Brian Fotheringham commented:
“The incident of 5 March 2010 caused the death of one employee and life changing injuries to another. Had the wind been blowing in the opposite direction it could also have caused a local disaster. However, the company still did not learn lessons from the 2010 incident and had another significant release of the same toxic gas just over a year later.
“This case must act as a reminder to the industry that there can be no room for complacency when dealing with such dangerous chemicals”.
According to the Grimsby Telegraph, Judge Jeremy Richardson QC told Hull Crown Court: “These three crimes – and this was criminal activity – reveal an enduring and worrying situation which came to a head during 2010 and 2011.”
It was a “truly lamentable state of affairs” and the events were an “utter disgrace”.
Michael Hayton QC, mitigating, said: “There were terrible failings six years ago.” The message that the incident must not happen again had been heeded and the company was “marching forward for the future”.
It employed 500 people but many more in the community relied on its business. Its products were used in paint and toothpaste.
“This is a good company with an exceptional workforce,” said Mr Hayton. “It is a major employer in a small community. It is the lifeblood of the community. It isn’t a wealthy company. It has been struggling latterly.”
The company had already paid about £900,000 towards the investigation costs.