Issues leading up to Varanus Island pipeline explosion

Adjunct Professor Geoff Taylor recently emailed me with his concerns about the pipeline explosion on Varanus Island.

Media reports in Western Australia over the last few weeks raised serious questions about the gas crisis. Some may say that it is easy to be wise after the event, but the government had ample opportunity to be wise before the event, and develop a plan to keep a close watch on the engineering integrity of energy suppliers’ plant and an emergency plan for the state and nation. There presumably would be a safety case on file for Varanus, for example, and safety cases include contingency plans.

Prof. Andrew Hopkins wrote a book Lessons from Longford that reported on the contributing factors to the Longford gas explosion ten years ago, which left Melbourne without gas.

Here more recently we have had vibrations in the Dampier-Perth pipe, the Woodside electrical substation problem in January which cut gas supply, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) concerns reportedly expressed to Apache in April,  and the prohibition notice NOPSA issued to the Four Vanguard FPSO off Barrow Island reported in May.

In fact it has reportedly emerged that the WA government has a critical infrastructure protection committee advising the Premier. The police had also apparently looked at Apache, from the point of view of a terror attack primarily, in 1993 and 2001, and provided advice to the company.

It is vital that the state government’s energy ministry takes a keener and more sustained interest in these matters in the future, as they clearly can affect not just WA firms and residents, but the state and national economies, and Australia’s overseas customers.

Clearly better coordination between NOPSA, WA Resources Safety (both of which find it hard to keep staff), the energy ministry and the Premier’s committee is vital. The state’s energy system cannot be run continuously at near full capacity, because there will be outages and shutdowns for maintenance.

The advent of peak oil has highlighted the critical nature of hydrocarbon supply to our way of life, and that and the need to address the greenhouse effect also require a clear national and state energy and urban design strategy, for a state and nation so far designed around cheap fuel.

Geoff is the co-author of some excellent OHS books, particularly Enhancing Safety.

Sugar vat explosion update

Further details have begun to emerge from the vat explosion at the Pioneer Sugar Mill at Burdekin in Queensland on 20 June 2008.  According to media reports, the plant, owned by CSR, was one of four sugar mills that suffered equipment failures on almost a daily basis, according to Burdekin Limited district manager Jim Collins.

Three workers were treated for minor injuries and the 80 staff at the mill  at the time were evacuated.

Sugar Vat Explosion

According to Australian news reports, several explosions have occurred at the Pioneer sugar mill in Queensland.  Two people have been seriously injured and 14 are currently trapped

According to firefighters there was a low pressure explosion in a 1,000 litre sugar vat at 9am on 20 June 2008. 

“After the vat exploded it fell over and pushed over another 1,000 litre sugar vat. The ‘mud’ that spilt from the vats ran into an adjoining lab facility and nine staff members were evacuated.”

Business Continuity from Pipeline “near miss”

Australia’s Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson has emphasised that the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) is a competent investigative organisation and that people should not speculate on the cause of the Varanus Island pipeline explosion before the report is completed.

At a joint press conference with the Minister on 14 June 2008, West Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter said it was too early to gauge the impact of the gas supply disruption. (Politically too early but the finance papers are full of the impact on Australian business.  Look at the disastrous share performance of Babcock & Brown Power for evidence.) Carpenter then estimated a cost to the economy of “hundreds of millions of dollars a day”.

NOPSA’s report should be fascinating reading on the operation of an isolated gas pipeline but more fascinating would be a book about how the West Australian energy infrastructure was allowed to become so fragile.  The book should also document the positives about the business continuity programs of the major WA industries.

The next impact will likely come from the insurance companies.

Pipeline explosion may lead to invocation of emergency powers

This post is receiving a lot of attention from around the world so, although, at the moment, the workplace safety issues have diminished, it is interesting to note that The Australian newspaper for 12 June 2008 reports that the Premier, Alan Carpenter, has acknowledged that he may need to invoke emergency powers to seize control of electricity and gas supplies.

This is an extraordinary development that indicates the infrastructure fragility of Western Australia.

The supply disruption is now also receiving federal government attention as it begins to affect Australia’s ability to supply China’s insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and energy.

Alcoa Australia is the latest company to announce a “force majeure” as a result of the Apache Energy pipeline explosion.

It is phenomenal to see how an event that in OHS terms is a “near miss” has the potential to weaken a country’s economic growth.

60 Minutes, Dust and Responsibility for Workplace Safety

On 8 June 2008, a US 60 Minutes report on combustible dust joined the conga-line of critics of the Occupational Safety And Health Administration.  The tone of the report is set by the reporter, Scott Pelley’s introduction stating that it is OSHA’s responsibility to avoid the explosions.  For OHS practitioners and professionals this is a peculiar statement as it is usually the employer’s responsibility for workplace safety.

The 60 Minutes report illustrates the difficulty that OHS inspectors face when visiting workplaces. Can an inspector be expected to identify ALL the hazards present in a workplace?  This is a constant problem for OHS regulators, employers and sadly, the Courts.

The accusation in the 60 Minutes report is that inspectors had no information or training on the explosive hazards of dust.  Training is not the solution for everything and an inspector’s state of knowledge should have identified dust as a potential hazard.  Even if the hazard was identified in terms of an inhalation risk, or housekeeping, the explosive risk would be reduced if housekeeping was applied properly.

OSHA clearly stated the responsibility of workplace safety being on the employers.  The missing element of the entire 60 Minutes report is that the site operators and employers who have experienced dust explosions were not interviewed.


More information on the February 2008 explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant mentioned in the report is available by clicking HERE

For those of you who find dust explosions exciting a video of a dust explosion in a silo is available HERE

For those employers or inspectors who did not do high school science, a schoolroom example of the combustible hazards of dust can be found HERE

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Pipeline Explosion in Western Australia

Western Australia’s gas supply has been disrupted due to an explosion at the Apache Energy off Dampier (shown below) on 3 June 2008.  Thirty per cent of the gas supply for that state is out of action.

There were no injuries and personnel were evacuated safely. The explosion site is pictured below.

This explosion presents important energy supply questions for the Western Australian government but, in the context of this blog, there are several paths to follow.  One will be to watch how Apache Energy handles the disaster management and business continuity.  The government will, undoubtedly, begin an inquiry and it will be interesting to note the assessment team structure and reporting lines. 

Another perspective will be to watch all of this evolve in comparison with the Esso Longford explosion in Victoria in 1998 which took out domestic and industrial gas supplies for almost two weeks. This incident lead to a Royal Commission. Compare and contrast.



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