A Lancashire campaigner is going to court to try to stop Cuadrilla fracking near Blackpool. He says he fears the authorities have failed to protect local people from emergencies at the site.
Bob Dennett, from Lytham, has lodged an application for a High Court injunction to halt fracking operations at the Preston New Road site.
The case comes as Cuadrilla appears to be days away from fracking what would be the UK’s first high volume hydraulic fracture since 2011 and the country’s first ever frack of a horizontal shale gas well.
Mr Dennett, a retired businessman, said this afternoon:
“Cuadrilla has a record of breaching planning conditions and timescales, and in 2011 its operations were linked to the UK’s first fracking earthquakes, which led to a moratorium. Lancashire County Council also has a record of failing to enforce breaches.
“Given the reports of on-site incidents in the US, I am gravely concerned that an incident could occur on this site. There seems to be no specific and robust plans for the evacuation of local residents, in particular children attending the 15 schools in the vicinity of the site.”
The court papers, delivered this morning, seek to prohibit fracking until “adequate and effective procedures are in place or until the court has otherwise determined this claim”.
Mr Dennett is bringing his case against Lancashire County Council, the co-ordinator of the local resilience forum (LRF), which is responsible for emergency planning.
He is seeking a judicial review of what he says is the failure of the county council:
“properly to manage and regulate the environmental and health and safety risks to the local community arising from the shale gas fracking operations by Cuadrilla at the Preston New Road shale gas fracking site”.
A spokesperson for the county council said:
“We are aware that an application has been lodged but given that legal proceedings are now active we are unable to comment further.”
Cuadrilla said it was aware that the injunction and judicial review (JR) case had been lodged. A spokesperson said:
“We remain confident that we and LCC have undertaken all necessary risk assessments and have thorough emergency response safety procedures in place.
“This is clearly a last ditch attempt at delaying our efforts to find a new source of much-needed natural gas for the UK which is a national imperative.
We consider the grounds for judicial review are hopelessly weak and will vigorously defend any call for an injunction”.
Mr Dennett has been working on the case with the independent campaigner and researcher, Helen Chuntso, who has been investigating the work of the LRF at Preston New Road.
Ms Chuntso said today:
“It is our belief that the LRF and emergency services have failed in their duty to adequately assess the risks to the public at Preston New Road.
“Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the LRF has a responsibility to consult with people and publish what contingency plans are in place to deal with any emergency, but it has failed to do this, despite numerous requests.
“The LRF has failed to comply with its duty to publish risk assessments and plans. This would enable homes, schools and businesses to prepare for an emergency and potentially reduce or mitigate the effects of a disaster.
“In the light of these potentially serious failings of the regulators, yet again the public has no choice but to make application to the courts for proper scrutiny.”
Cuadrilla is listed as an interested party in the case and has been notified about serious issues raised about public safety in the event of an incident at the wellsite, Ms Chuntso said.
She said the authorities had failed in their duty because there was:
- No evidence provided of adequate assessment of the risks at the site
- No published evacuation plan for neighbouring homes and schools, as required in government guidance to LRFs under the Civil Contingencies Act
- No specific arrangements for dealing with local traffic in an emergency
- No adequate liaison with local people to ensure familiarization with emergency plans to mitigate effects
The Preston New Road shale gas site is within 1km of two villages and within 5km of 15 schools and the town of Kirkham. A mental health hospital is 1.8km away.
The site was assessed as “medium” risk by the LRF. This meant that emergency planning at the site was dealt with by generic arrangements, rather than a multi-agency site-specific plan. Local opponents of fracking have argued that this risk assessment placed much of the response to emergencies on local people and institutions, like schools and hospitals.
Ms Chuntso said Preston New Road should be assessed as a high risk because shale gas extraction was a potentially dangerous process and the site included the use of gas pipelines.
She alleged that the county council, as co-ordinator for the LRF, had acted unlawfully in the way it assessed the risk of the site.
The county council failed to consider the connection of gas from the site to the national grid by a pipeline, she said. It also failed to take account that some people would not have adequate or effective emergency procedures or adequate shelters.
Ms Chuntso said it was unclear whether there would be an adequate water supply available in an emergency because both United Utilities and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service failed to respond to requests for information in the time permitted by the Freedom of Information Act. To date, the fire service has failed to clarify this issue, she said.
She added that the council should not have assumed that everyone would follow emergency advice without instructions or training – or that people would be responsible for those in their care.
The county council was further accused of failing to respond appropriately or at all to public requests for information. It had also failed to disclose documents to solicitors, she said.
Question of emergency
The legal action followed months of questions about emergency planning by people living near the Preston New Road site and further afield.
For the past year, the issue of emergency planning at the site has been repeatedly raised by members of the community liaison group for Preston New Road.
In July 2018, the group voted in favour of a co-ordinated multi-agency site-specific emergency plan (minutes). The CLG has been told that the emergency services have prepared individual site-specific emergency plans but the details could not be provided for security reasons. The group has also raised concerns about the practicality of evacuating the 200 homes on the Carr bridge Residential Park near the Preston New Road site.
Julie Marchese, a local parent, wrote to her children’s school and to Lancashire County Council about evacuation plans. Her questions to the council included what methods would be used to contact the schools in an emergency and what shelter would be provided for children.
The council treated her questions as a Freedom of Information request, which meant there does not have to be a response until the end of this month (October 2018). She said:
“By which time, unbelievably, Cuadrilla says it will be fracking.
“I was angry, astonished and felt like I was being fobbed off. I wrote back to them on 28 September, explaining that this response is not good enough, again stressing the importance and timescale. I have still not heard back.
“When fracking goes ahead, it could be tomorrow. What am I supposed to do, knowing that my children are not protected from a hydrogen sulphide leak? I have looked up its effects and it horrifies me. None of my children have even had a practice drill.
“I can’t believe what is happening. I am worried and feel that I have not been listened to or taken seriously. I don’t know what to do.”
DrillOrDrop understands that local schools have received guidance from the county council about an incident at Preston New Road. The guidance requires schools to arrange immediate shelter and await further information from the emergency services regarding evacuation.
Helen Chuntso said she had asked hundreds of questions about how the area would prepare for an emergency at Preston New Road. She made nine Freedom of Information requests and exchanged at least 20 emails and letters with officials responsible for community safety.
“For over a year, every agency with public accountability for civil contingency planning has delayed, refused to reply, argued with the Information Commissioner’s decisions and sought to present a united front of ‘we have got this covered by our generic plans’.
“Any intelligent person can clearly see that fracking is not a ‘medium risk activity’.
“The LRF been asked countless times to demonstrate that the risk assessment was robust and carried out by suitably qualified personnel and that adequate plans were in place to mitigate risk. Given several months to do so, including a legally binding request from solicitors, the LRF failed to provide essential documents that would demonstrate this.
“We are being asked to place the safety of our children and community on faith alone. I find it frightening that, days before fracking is set to commence, regulators cannot prove what plans are in place and publish them to assist in community preparedness. We have no choice but to challenge this by judicial review.
“In the event of a well blow out or gas leak, it is unacceptable that schools are being expected to ‘shelter in place’.
“There is no suggestion offered by any agency as to how children may be protected from toxic gas ingress, and even less of a known plan for how to evacuate the thousands of school children or hospital patients within an hour of a gas leak being detected, despite legal disclosure being sought and being required to do so. Parents requests are being side-lined for a response that would be weeks after fracking has commenced. What kind of contempt for community engagement is this?
“In the light of the Grenfell Towers disaster, we have the local resilience forum, a public body with no legal standing or powers, in charge of a risk assessment, which it has refused to place in the public domain when required by law.”
DrillOrDrop has invited the authorities to comment and this post will be updated with any response.
How the authorities responded
Lancashire County Council
In June 2018, Helen Chuntso asked Lancashire County Council a series of questions about community engagement activities, alarm systems, preparation for evacuation of schools, dissemination of information, public consultation, system testing, training, and the annual review of procedures.
She said the county council’s 20-day response to the Freedom of Information request was delayed by over 5 weeks and avoided most of the questions. It simply said the warning and information arrangements were deemed sufficient for a medium-risk facility.
According to the county council, the LRF was not a legally-constituted entity in its own right. Its documents could not be subject to Freedom of Information requests. Many of its documents have protective marking status and cannot be shared widely, it replied.
In September 2018, Ms Chuntso asked for the LRF’s full Preston New Road risk assessment and supporting documents. She also asked for information about who wrote the risk assessment, including details of their training and competency to do so. She also asked to see correspondence between local and central government, and for information provided to the community liaison group for the Preston New Road site. She said she had received no answers to her questions.
In a separate Freedom of Information request, Ms Chuntso asked United Utilities about the provision of water to tackle any emergency in light of water shortages. This letter was copied to the county council, the Lancashire County Council and the Health and Safety Executive. She said she had received no substantive reply.
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service
Ms Chuntso said Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) refused to confirm or deny whether it had been consulted about emergency planning at Preston New Road, a requirement under the Borehole Sites and Operating Regulations 1995. The fire service later refused to comply with an instruction from the Information Commissioner to provide this information and has now appealed.
LFRS also refused to say whether it had carried out a risk assessment for hydrogen sulphide leaks at Preston New Road. After months of appeals, the Information Commissioner intervened and again instructed Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. After much correspondence, the LFRS said it had not done this risk assessment.
Ms Chuntso said:
“This is of particular concern because no one, including Cuadrilla really know whether H2S is present in the formations. Cuadrilla’s estimations that it is present only in ‘trace amounts’ is not a robust way to go about conducting a risk assessment of toxic gases”.
A spokesperson for Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service said:
“Legal proceedings underway prevent us from further comment.”
Lancashire police confirmed to Ms Chuntso:
“Lancashire Constabulary does not have any specific emergency evacuation of the public/traffic management plans for emergency evacuation of Preston New Road well-site”.
It said the force served on the LRF, which had assessed the risk as medium level and covered by generic arrangements.
Lancashire Police also confirmed that no assessment had been undertaken under Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure there were sufficient officers with adequate protective equipment to respond within 10 minutes to evacuate the area. It said:
“Should a hazardous environment be identified we would withdraw officers to a safe distance to negate the need for PPE [personal protective equipment] and we would also endeavour to evacuate the public as well.”
Ms Chuntso said
“It still is not clear to me how police, with no PPE, could simultaneously withdraw to an unidentified ‘safe distance’ whilst ‘endeavouring to evacuate the public as well’.
“It is truly frightening to consider the over-reliance on school teachers, unqualified in assessing gas leaks, to request schoolchildren to shelter in place and wait for an all-clear. Are children expected to hide under their desks, with no known gas monitoring systems, or gas ingress-free spaces, and no training drills?
“I have seen no adequate proof that the evacuation of schoolchildren has been considered in relation to a novel activity, such as fracking.
“You would not expect your child to attend a school without fire drills in place. Yet Cuadrilla can frack near your school and the teachers have not finalised their risk assessment days before operations begin. This is terrifying.
“This industry simply cannot guarantee there will be no well blow outs or leakage of toxic gases. In the US, these incidents have happened. As this industry seeks to establish itself in the UK, LRFs must not be complicit in an attempt to hide this reality from the public, and pretend that fracking carries a medium level risk to the communities which host it.
“The Government must be honest with the public and admit that they may be forced to evacuate their homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals. People must be given the chance to prepare for this.”
Lancashire Police declined to comment.
- Mr Dennett has launched a crowdjustice appeal to raise money for the case. Link here