The government has been urged to delay a final decision on fracking near Blackpool because of local concerns about a lack of information on plans to deal with an emergency.
In letters to the Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, campaigners, residents and a councillor have said fracking consent should not be granted for Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site until they have more details about the arrangements to protect local people.
The writers have called for an investigation into whether an emergency evacuation plan is needed for homes surrounding the site and three nearby schools.
Mr Clark (left) has also been urged to state publicly that he is satisfied the local emergency services are sufficiently prepared to deal with a well blow out or leak of dangerous gases.
The issue has been taken up by the Conservative MP for the area, Mark Menzies, who has written to the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) about local concerns.
The Green Party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, also said he would raise them today at a meeting with Cuadrilla.
The letters to Mr Clark follow a formal request from Cuadrilla for consent to frack the UK’s first horizontal shale gas well at Preston New Road.
They also come after numerous public requests for information have failed to establish what procedures would be used in an emergency.
Correspondence seen by DrillOrDrop indicates that there are no specific evacuation arrangements for buildings around the site nor a specific plan to deal with the effects on the surroundings of an unplanned release of gas. The Health and Safety Executive told us it had not been consulted on an emergency plan for the area outside the site.
Arrangements appear to rely on a generic emergency plan, not publicly available, developed by the Lancashire Local Resilience Forum. This is a group made up of the “blue-light” emergency services, NHS organisations, Lancashire County Council and the Environment Agency.
“Refusals, delays and evasion”
Residents and campaigners have spoken of their growing frustration at the lack of information about emergency planning for Preston New Road.
They say they have requested information through the community liaison group for Preston New Road and formally through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests but have received no useful responses.
Helen Chuntso: “proper communication needed”
The environmental campaigner, Helen Chuntso, has made FOI requests for details about the emergency plans to Lancashire Police, the county’s Fire and Rescue Service and the Police and Crime Commissioner.
In one request, she asked Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) about how it proposed to deal with hydrogen sulphide, a highly toxic and flammable gas, sometimes found in natural gas. She specifically asked about the LFRS use of monitors, alarm systems and Hazmet suits.
The LFRS refused to answer her request, citing national security among other reasons. She asked for an internal review of the decision and the request was again refused.
Ms Chuntso made another FOI request to the LFRS about whether it had been consulted on emergency responses and rescue methods. In eight questions, she asked the LFRS to provide information or confirm whether such consultations took place.
The LFRS again twice refused to respond, once more citing national security as one of the reasons.
DrillOrDrop reported in April 2018 that the Information Commissioner had ordered the LFRS to confirm or deny whether the consultations took place. Since then the LFRS has said it will appeal against the Information Commissioner’s ruling.
Ms Chuntso also put questions to Lancashire Police (links here and here) about evacuation drills, risk assessments and emergency responses. The police have failed to respond within the time specified in the freedom of information legislation.
Ms Chuntso told DrillOrDrop
“There needs to be public engagement on a plan for the evacuation of thousands of schoolchildren and residents for up to 3 miles from the wellsite.
“Any plans which the LRF [Local Resilience Forum] thinks are adequate need to be properly communicated to the public, so everyone can scrutinize them and discuss the impact on public health, and local business, and be prepared.
“The repeated refusal of Category 1 responders [“blue-light” services and local authority] to communicate on this matter displays a contempt for public safety.
“This disregard for true community engagement is the hallmark of this industry’s activity.
“One year on from the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, Greg Clark would be on very dangerous ground if he were to grant permission to frack in the UK whilst inadequate emergency evacuation plans are in place.”
Ben Dean: “allay local concerns”
Another campaigner, Ben Dean, asked the LFRS in an FOI request to answer yes or no to whether it had done a risk assessment on potential well leakage of hydrogen sulphide from Preston New Road to the surrounding atmosphere.
The LFRS refused to answer. It said:
“Confirmation or denial of whether information is held would undoubtedly compromise both national security and undermine law enforcement and public safety processes. Therefore, it is our opinion that for these reasons the balancing test for not confirming whether or not any information is held is upheld. However, this should not be taken as conclusive evidence that the information you requested exists or does not exist.”
In another request, Mr Dean asked:
“Is there an evacuation plan in place for the evacuation of local school children and residents in the event of a well blow-out or dangerous gas leakage. Yes or No”.
The LFRS refused to answer.
In an email to the Energy Secretary, Mr Dean said:
“After an internal review I received a disgraceful 15-page letter quoting every available FOI exemption regulation the FOI officer could find.
“This sort of response has to be a very serious concern to you, as you carry the ultimate responsibility for granting Cuadrilla consent to frack.”
“The Lancashire emergency services say the Lancashire Resilience Forum would cover an emergency at Preston New Road. This plan though is a ‘secret plan’ and from other FOI responses from third parties that I have seen (these FOIs are in the public domain on the ‘What do they Know’ website) there is no evacuation plan should there be an emergency at Preston New Road.”
He urged Mr Clark to:
“Pause from making a decision whilst a Designated Independent Person investigated the emergency preparedness for an emergency at Preston New Road, including whether there needs to be an emergency evacuation plan, taking in to account that fracking sites in the United States tend to require evacuation plans.”
Mr Dean also asked the Secretary of State:
“Please allay the local community concerns by providing a public statement that, having communicated with Lancashire emergency services, you are 100% satisfied with their emergency preparedness to cover a well blow out and/or a leakage of dangerous gases.”
He likened Preston New Road to the Chester University science park near the Stanlow refinery at Ellesmere Port. Earlier this month, Cheshire West and Chester Council refused retrospective planning permission to use the site for education. The Health and Safety Executive advised the council that students would be at risk if there was a toxic gas release or explosion from the refinery.
Mr Dean told Mr Clark:
“You are faced with a very similar scenario in being the ultimate decision maker to permit Fracking to commence at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road Development near Kirkham in Lancashire.”
Miranda Cox: “more needs to be done to explain safety measures”
Miranda Cox, a member of Kirkham Town Council and the Preston New Road Community Liaison Group (CLG), has also written to Mr Clark.
In her letter, she said:
“For over a year the Preston New Road Community Liaison Group has been asking for details of an emergency plan.
“Members have been made aware of several frack well blow outs across the world and, in particular, a really tragic one in the USA about four months ago that killed five workers and resulted in an air and ground exclusion zone.
“Given the Preston New Road sites proximity to domestic residences, schools, businesses and a busy arterial road many people are naturally concerned about the potential for accidents.
“Last June the Chair of the CLG asked specifically that Cuadrilla share an emergency plan with members to allay fears. The issue of the emergency plan, or lack of, is revisited at every CLG meeting and the request has been repeatedly evaded.”
Cllr Cox said the CLG had been told the site would be covered by a generic plan. But she told Mr Clark:
“Fracking cannot be compared to other sites. The nature of its activity could result in seismic activity miles from site and a rig blow out would not be contained within the pad itself.”
“As the PNR site progresses towards the fracking stage we have stressed that more needs to be done to explain safety measures, rather than the glib comment that ‘all need to be ready to react to the emergency services’.
“Our community includes vulnerable and isolated elderly people, school children, police officers on duty at the site and those protesting outside, all of whom Cuadrilla claim will be away from harm. However, gas emissions, quakes and explosions are not contained by security fencing.
“The regulation being touted by Government is not sufficient, as we have already experienced in Lancashire, and certainly counts for nothing once an accident has occurred.
“We have experts in our communities whom are being ignored and side-lined. We need to operate a precautionary principle rather than make apologies when it is too late.”
Who is responsible for emergency planning?
The Civil Contingencies Act established the responsibilities for emergency planning.
It identified Category 1 responders as the “blue light” emergency services, along with organisations including local authorities, NHS hospital trusts and the Environment Agency.
Guidance from the Cabinet Office, based on the Act, states that there is a duty on these organisations to:
- Provide advice and information to the public
- Warn them about emergencies.
The guidance says Category 1 responders had a duty to:
“Make the public aware of the risks of emergencies and the planned response.”
It added that this duty was:
“based on the premise that a well-informed public is better able to respond to an emergency and able to help minimise the impact of an emergency.”
There was a need to “avoid unnecessary public alarm” but it added:
“Research shows that the public have an appetite for information and are more likely to be alarmed if they feel that they have insufficient information.”
Local MP, Mark Menzies, told DrillOrDrop ,
“Last week I wrote to the Chief Fire Officer for Lancashire, Chris Kenny, to raise this important issue. I am currently awaiting his response.”
DrillOrDrop is sending this article to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, Lancashire Police and other members of the Lancashire Local Resilience Forum. We will publish a separate article with their responses.