Oil giant Shell has admitted blame for an accident at one of its refineries which saw 20-tonnes of lighter fluid released into the air. The explosive isobutane (LPG) was mixed with 150 kilos of toxic hydrogen fluoride (HF) when it escaped from a corroded pipe at the Stanlow petro-chemical plant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, in May 2003. The company pleaded guilty yesterday at Chester Crown Court to failing to comply with Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations.
The gas dispersed without causing injury but Judge Roger Dutton was told that had it exploded, there would have been multiple casualties.
Simon Parrington, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, said: "The escape of gas was caused by Shell's failure to properly inspect and maintain the pipe.
"In difference circumstances the consequences of this incident could have been very serious indeed.
"The issue we are concerned with is the toxicity of the gas. HF is lethal and could have caused many fatalities."
The 6in pipe, located at a section of Stanlow known as the HF Alkylation plant, had been neglected for years, Mr Parrington said.
He said: "The company failed in its duty to take the necessary measures to avoid a serious accident.
"This is a company which has posted 13.7bn in profits and it has huge resources at its disposal."
A HSE inspection of the Stanlow site after the incident found no further cause for concern.
Graham Wells, defending Shell UK, said: "The defendant accepts that this was a serious matter.
"The process is one which uses hazardous chemicals and the escape happened because the pipe was corroded.
"Pipes should not corrode and this is the basis of the guilty plea."
Judge Dutton adjourned the hearing for sentencing at a later date.
In a statement, Stanlow's general manager Yuri Sebregts said: "We responded quickly after the event and since then we have co-operated fully with the HSE in their investigation.
"Changes have been made to the plant and procedures to ensure that the problem will not re-occur.
"Nevertheless, we regret the incident and our learning from it has been noted and shared with other producers."