By Angelos Anastasiou
The adequacy of the state’s health and safety measures relating to the Vassilikos Energy Complex (VEC) were challenged before development of the site even started, but the opening of a giant oil-storage terminal last December was a game-changer, as the debate moved from academic discussion to the harsh realities on the ground, especially for area residents.
One of these, Brian Lait, a retired chartered accountant, seems to have taken it upon himself to make sure the government doesn’t get away with ignoring the public’s concerns. His tireless campaign to get answers to legitimate safety questions has ensured very few – if any – individuals involved in dealing with an accident at Vassilikos will be able to say “no one asked”.
The VEC, a 25 kilometres squared coastal industrial area between Larnaca and Limassol, is a behemoth of a petroleum and natural gas storage and processing complex. In addition to the VTT Vassilikos Oil Storage terminal, which became operational last December, the VEC currently also features local Petrolina’s tank farm, for a combined 392,000 cubic metres of oil stored. When completed, the VEC will hold at least 1.4 million cubic metres of petroleum products.
Compounding the concentration risk, the Electricity Authority of Cyprus’ main power station – generating some 60 per cent of the island’s electricity – is located on the east corner of the VEC, and includes a desalination plant. The VEC is also the planned site for a natural gas liquefaction terminal to process Cyprus’ gas reserves, though it is increasingly unlikely that the plant will ever be built.
Lait’s main concern is that the government is welcoming the much-needed private investment at the VEC, but cutting corners on health and safety measures, doing just enough to make sure all the right boxes are ticked but not troubling itself with substance. (In one of his numerous email exchanges with one official, he recalled a pejorative term from his days as a professional accountant: “my American fellow international colleagues called this sort of statement a CYA – ‘cover your arse’”.)
“People’s lives and property are at high risk here and someone, somewhere, should ensure they are both protected,” he told former European Commission Environment Directorate head Thomas Verheye in a February 2015 letter.
Lait has searched everywhere for answers, and some have been provided. Others – unsurprisingly, the alarming ones – can only be faintly discerned behind the familiar assurances of public officials.
In case of a major accident on any of the VEC sites, Lait has asked just about anyone who would listen, to what extent is the Cyprus state capable of responding timely and effectively to minimise both the direct damage, as well as the possible domino effect on nearby facilities?
VTTV’s managing director George Papanastasiou is adamant his own terminal’s disaster-response capabilities have all bases covered.
“Our planning builds on the assumption that during an incident we will be acting alone, with no support from the fire service or anyone else,” he told the Sunday Mail.
He described a state-of-the-art firefighting system that seems to have considered every possible circumstance, including a scenario in which electricity is not an option, complete with a moving-parts system that can address multiple fires on- and off-site, as well as an outsourced oil-spill crew on retainer nearby.
“However, all these systems are reactive in nature, not proactive,” Papanastasiou pointed out.
“We focus on preventive maintenance, and because such instances are usually caused by human error, our biggest investment is in personnel training.”
It sounds almost foolproof, and it might well be. But private companies have a legal obligation to take every reasonable precaution to avoid putting the general public at risk – and that’s it. A state’s ethical obligation to its citizens has to be absolute, sparing no expense and leaving no one behind. Unfortunately, it is far from evident that Cyprus can clear this higher bar.
“My judgement is that the fire service has a lot of the resources necessary to address an incident – they may be lacking some, but we’ve got them,” Papanastasiou said.
Still, the question of whether a state can legitimately rely on the private sector to complement its service to the public by doing its health and safety bidding is a loaded one. No, it can’t – otherwise it might as well privatise the fire service, or the police force.
Commissioner for the Environment Ioanna Panayiotou referred to the Zenon Plan, a peacetime-crisis management blueprint devised by the government in October 2013 that offers ministries and departments guidelines on how to prepare emergency plans to address specific disasters. Several operational plans have been prepared under Zenon guidelines, including Dominicos – the response plan for the VEC – under the remit of the interior ministry.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the details,” she told the Sunday Mail.
“I’m expecting the ministries to revert on questions I have submitted to them.”
She also referred to “Seveso plans”, named for a small town north of Milan, Italy, most heavily affected by the release of carcinogen chemicals in a 1976 industrial accident that triggered – and lent its name to – standardised industrial safety regulations. The European Union first laid such regulations down in its 1982 Seveso Directive, replaced in 1996 by Seveso II, in turn giving way to Seveso III, which comes into force EU-wide on June 1, 2015. But this translates into less than it promises.
Seveso III must be adopted into national law by all member states by June 1, but that seems to be the extent to which the EU is willing to involve itself into the affairs of its member states – even if it is made aware of flagrant non-compliance. The “principle of subsidiarity” simply means that as long as member states have adequately amended or introduced legislation harmonising themselves with the directive, they are deemed fully compliant, and enforcement is left completely up to them individually.
“The existence of an isolated situation which appears to be inconsistent with the implementation of a directive does not provide sufficient grounds to conclude that an EU law is being infringed,” the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General head Aneta Willems told Lait in an email last March.
“An indication that the member state has failed to fulfil its obligations under EU law may arise only if the situation persists without any remedial action being taken by the competent national authorities.”
Enforcement basically means that the state is responsible for inspecting sites for compliance with Seveso provisions. In Cyprus, drafting and implementing legislation to ensure Seveso compliance is the remit of the labour ministry’s department of labour inspection (DLI). The DLI confirmed appropriate legislation has been prepared and forwarded to the legal service for review ahead of the June 1 deadline, and that Seveso facilities, “including the VTTV oil-storage terminal”, are inspected annually – the dates of such inspections, although explicitly requested, were not provided.
Most telling was the fire service’s response to the Sunday Mail’s inquiries. Nicosia district fire service head Leonidas Leonidou was confident in assessing the fire service’s disaster-response capabilities. But the devil lies in the details, and his full remarks left much to be desired in terms of reassurance value. The VEC includes a jetty for loading and unloading petroleum products, so incidents at sea must be part of any response plan.
“We certainly have the operational capability of dealing with an incident at sea – we are not naked,” he said.
And if the “not naked” standard had not raised any red flags, a brief description of how the fire service plans to handle an offshore incident did.
“We don’t have a port fire service like other countries do, but we can deal with a blaze at sea,” he insisted.
“In such a case, our firefighting equipment would be transported to the site either by a Cyprus ports authority vessel, or by marine police.”
In plain speak, the response time, perhaps the single most crucial element in containing a crisis, would be compromised in search of a vessel from one of two possible suppliers, and then waiting for its dispatch to the site.
Acknowledging the significance of the time factor, the VEC master plan, a controversial document prepared by Noble Energy advisers for the government, called for the construction and manning of a dedicated fire station in Kalavasos that will cater specifically to the VEC, offering rapid-response capability. Though it would appear that its inclusion into the Master Plan implicitly suggests its necessity, the fire station has neither been built, nor even announced as of yet.
“Its construction is provided for in the master plan,” Leonidou said, implying it can safely be expected in the near future. That would be a much more reassuring proposition if he had not remarked moments earlier that plans to create a port fire service dated back to 2002, only to be shelved ever since due to budgetary constraints.
Survival and physical safety are universally cited as two of the most basic human needs. Before a government can consider improving the standard of living, or its administrative services to the public, or battling bureaucracy, it needs to make sure its people are safe from physical harm. It needs to flip Papanastasiou’s “acting alone” planning principle on its head, and act as if it were solely mandated by the people themselves to ensure their wellbeing beyond reasonable doubt – which, of course, it is.