By Angelos Anastasiou
IT WAS a typical morning at Buncefield, Hertfordshire on December 11, 2005, just a regular Sunday in which the quiet seemed as certain as the biting cold, but only until 6 am. At 6.01 came the first blast at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal. Courtesy of a malfunctioning level gauge that had allowed one of the storage tanks to overfill for about forty minutes, the explosion measured 2.4 on the Richter scale.
The initial detonation and subsequent explosions took out more than 20 large storage tanks and badly damaged several surrounding office blocks – which were empty on Sunday, sparing many lives. The ensuing fire, the largest in Europe since World War II, took over two days to extinguish and required the commitment of enough personnel, equipment and supplies to deem the incident “the 9/11 of industrial fire fighting”.
The Vassilikos Energy Complex (VEC), as envisioned by the Cyprus government, will be smaller than the Buncefield oil depot, but the reserves and facilities it is designed to accommodate will be of critical importance to Cyprus.
The Vassilikos area, roughly half-way along the coast between Larnaca and Limassol, is the island’s only coastal industrial area with a port and has been chosen by the government to contain a bewildering array of major energy-related projects. In addition to the existing Electricity Authority of Cyprus (EAC) power station and oil-storage space for two private companies (VTTI and Petrolina), the government has designated the area as the host of the country’s strategic oil reserves and a future natural gas liquefaction terminal. It has also approved the expansion of VTTI and Petrolina’s tank farms, a project almost completed. In some respects, the match of location and purpose is near-ideal. In several others, less so.
A report – or Master Plan – has been commissioned by Noble Energy, on behalf of the Cyprus government, for the VEC. The finalised report was issued on October 31, 2013 and proposes the construction of a natural gas liquefaction terminal, assuming sufficient offshore gas reserves are found to justify the facility’s cost. Phase 1 of the proposal calls for the construction of three ‘trains’ – liquefaction facilities – and is yet to be decided on pending confirmation of amounts of gas discovered. Phases 2 and 3 call for the construction of additional trains and storage space, but would only be adopted if ‘rich’ gas reserves were found. At present, the discovery of enough quantities to justify phases 2 and 3 is considered improbable.
The Master Plan called for public consultation with the affected communities, which ended on February 7. The eight communities of the area strongly oppose the government plans but deny any consultation has taken place, causing the government to extend the consultation period to the end of February.
Such concentration of nationally critical installations and reserves has raised a few eyebrows, especially considering that the EAC power plant at Vassilikos suffered devastating damage from the 2011 explosion at the adjacent naval base in which 13 people were killed. The power station has since been repaired and upgraded at a reported cost of hundreds of millions of euros and substantial social cost – daily power cuts at peak consumption times throughout the island were enforced for several weeks in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Although building the liquefaction terminal hasn’t officially been green-lighted yet, clustering almost everything energy-related in this 25 square kilometre area almost borders on hubris.
Not surprisingly, local residents have major environmental and safety concerns. Andy Renals, a retired command-level officer in a UK fire brigade with 27 years of experience in dealing with the hazards and risks associated with fire-fighting, harbours serious doubts as to whether Cyprus has the necessary equipment, manpower, or planning to effectively deal with a Buncefield-type incident. His interest may not be purely altruistic – he lives in Maroni village, some 10 kilometres away from the Vassilikos site and one of the eight affected communities.
“If you look at the existing storage facility that VTTI have created, there are as far as they’ve published [on their website], currently 20 storage tanks that have been completed, and I would like to be reassured that Cyprus has the fire-fighting capability to deal with that particular hazard,” he explains.
According to Renals, containing and extinguishing a fire at an oil terminal would require staggering amounts of foam concentrate and water, as well as the necessary delivery equipment – fire engines, pressure pumps, support vehicles – and the manpower to handle it.
Yiannis Loizou, assistant chief of the fire service, rejects the use of the Buncefield incident as an operational benchmark for the Vassilikos site because of “different conditions”.
He said that the fire service is both sufficiently stocked and adequately trained for any emergency, with an ‘under 30 minutes’ operational readiness plan for half of its force at any time.
Outside the storage facilities, where people live, the responsibility for immediate-response action to protect the public in the event of an industrial accident at the Vassilikos terminals lies with the civil defence department. The department’s head, Maria Papa, explained that specific plans to reflect increased risk to residents in the surrounding area are currently being worked up and are not expected to be finalised until the end of May at the earliest.
“Though current plans do exist, they are somewhat archaic and empirical. The new ones are more professional and include expert input,” she said.
Existing emergency plans provide for collaboration with the fire service and the police to determine incident magnitude and action needs. According to current planning, evacuation of at-risk residents will be achieved primarily by alerting village community councils, as well as by civil defence officers travelling to the affected residential areas to coordinate the effort.
The Master Plan includes provisions for “facilities for fire protection systems and fire-fighting automation” in the tank-farms, refers to European regulations setting safety standards, and recommends the construction of a fire station near the site, but does not address the issue of current response capability. Hopefully, the fire service has a plan – and the resources – in place to deal with the increased risk posed by the expanding tank-farms, but if it does, it hasn’t told the public.
“I’ve lived here for a number of years and, had there been for instance an exercise in the existing site at Larnaca, I suspect the local press would have covered it, it would have been a significant event, because such events require a lot of pumping appliances, a lot of staff and a lot of materials,” Renals says.
Is it possible that the government may have authorised the expansion of oil storage tank-farms without due regard to the country’s disaster-response capability? Perhaps, given safety and security standards adhered to in the construction of the facilities, the risks of accident and containment failure have been deemed negligible. According to Renals, when it’s all said and done, that shouldn’t matter, because the mindset required in planning for such eventualities is “if it can go wrong, it will.”
“Ultimately an incident can be predicted to happen, we just don’t know the timescale that that incident will happen,” he says with eerie conviction.
In any case, risk is determined not only in terms of the direct and immediate threat to human health. Any incident at the site could incur substantial financial cost and environmental catastrophe. The nearby desalination plant would be the likely first victim. According to the water works department, water quality is checked by the plant, and samples sent to government labs for testing, on a daily basis. Upon identification of any pollution or contamination, the plant would cease to operate immediately, thus minimising risk to public health, but the impact on the local fish and agriculture industries would be devastating.
And opportunity costs of the VEC don’t just lie in increased safety and environmental hazards, nor in the risk inherent in the concentration of critical assets. In the – improbable at present – case of sufficient amounts of natural gas being found in Cyprus’ EEZ, the Vassilikos Master Plan goes into Phase 3, which calls for the construction of additional natural-gas liquefaction ‘trains’ and requires the relocation of the entire Mari village to free up building space.
“We have not yet filed an official complaint because no final decisions have been announced by the government. But we are against the development of the area for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it would require, if not force, residents to relocate,” Mari mukhtar Maria Georgiou says.
“Though the relocation effort by the government is not new – it started about 19 years ago, with the plans to construct the EAC power plant – we were never engaged in any part of the decision-making process.”
Mari is a village of refugees. It used to be a Turkish Cypriot village, inhabited by refugees following the 1974 Turkish invasion. Its residents aren’t willing to relocate – again – but that is not an immediate concern. Right now they oppose the planned development because, as succinctly phrased by Georgiou, “really, where does it stop?”