Safety in the port of Rotterdam

  • In this summer, there were fires at both ExxonMobil and Shell Pernis
  • Was this just a coincidence, or are we really seeing an increase in the number of incidents occurring in the port?
  • We asked Lindy Schotman, a risk and crisis communications coordinator with the Rotterdam-Rijnmond Regional Security Partnership

It was a ‘hot summer’ in the port, what with two fires at Shell Pernis and one at ExxonMobil. Are we seeing an increase in the number of fires and incidents, or was this pure coincidence?
‘Pure coincidence. As a matter of fact, the number of incidents occurring in the port has decreased in the last few years. For instance, the Joint Fire Fighters (Gezamenlijke Brandweer, a.k.a. GB) received 1,174 notifications in 2015, versus 1,049 in 2016. And the number of incidents reported to the Centralised Incident Hotline – these are incidents that may require the emergency services to spring into action – has been stable for years, at around 300 per year.’

Both Shell and ExxonMobil are old refineries. Politicians have suggested that they may have reached ‘the end of their lifespan’ and so are more unsafe. Is this true?
‘It is true that both refineries are reasonably old, but that does not necessarily make them more unsafe. It is more useful to look at the attention being paid to maintenance. Are run-down components quickly noticed and replaced? Work is always ongoing in the industrial complexes situated in the port, and large parts of them have been upgraded in the course of time. Of course, age may be an issue in older parts of the industry. In order to gain a better understanding of this, the government’s inspectorates have embarked on a special programme. The conclusions are yet to be presented.’

How quickly can you be on the spot when a fire at a refinery is reported?
‘When a fire is reported, the fire brigade will be on its way at once. Shell and Esso have their own corporate fire brigades which can be on the spot within one minute, and it will take the first vehicle of the Joint Fire Fighters six minutes at most to get to the gate. It will soon be followed by other units. A guide will wait for them at the gate and take them safely to the incident. The units will proceed in close cooperation with an expert working for the company, due to the potential presence of hazardous substances. If there are any hazardous substances, measurements will be carried out, outside the gates as well as inside. If a substance is found in the air, our Hazardous Substances Consultant will draw up an action plan. Among other things, this will outline in which areas people will have to close their doors and windows and how the emergency service crews should approach the incident zone, as far as the direction of the wind is concerned, and what type of personal protective equipment they should wear.’

It is possible for a fire in one refinery to spread to another refinery?
‘No, that is impossible. All refineries are required to implement measures that prevent that sort of thing.’

To what extent are fire brigades and emergency services prepared for major incidents in the port area?
‘They are very well prepared indeed. We are the only region in the Netherlands that has a Joint Fire Fighters squad (GB), which specialises in fighting industrial fires. The GB comprises some sixty companies active in the port and industrial zone, which collaborate with the Rotterdam municipal authorities. The GB is in close touch with the police and the Rotterdam-Rijnmond Regional Security Partnership – i.e., the regional fire brigade, the ambulance service, the Port of Rotterdam Authority and their joint alarm-receiving centre. These parties often practise major emergency operations together, focusing particularly on how to collaborate with each other.’

You also inspect companies’ safety and fire safety situations. How do you go about that?
‘Refineries and chemical plants are visited by a team of inspectors at least once per year. On such occasions, the inspectors will check whether the working conditions are safe and not damaging to the workers’ health, among other things. In addition, specialists working for DCMR (Rijnmond Environmental Protection Agency), the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment’s inspectorate and the Rotterdam-Rijnmond Regional Security Partnership check whether equipment is maintained properly and systematically. Companies may be responsible for their own fire safety provisions, but proper maintenance is essential to security, including fire safety.’

How safe do the neighbours feel?

Frits Elenbaas from Rozenburg
‘I’ve lived in Rozenburg for over forty years, and I never used to feel unsafe until 2011, when the abuses at Odfjell – leaks and overdue maintenance – were publicised. That’s when I got a little nervous. Since then, I’ve visited companies such as Vopak, Lyondell and Air Products in my capacity as a member of the Rozenburg Sounding Board. Thanks to all the information I’ve received on the companies’ preventive measures, I feel safer now. I am concerned about the lack of potential escape routes in the event of a disaster, though. The future Blankenburg Tunnel will be good in that regard.’

Adri Meijboom from Pernis
‘I have lived in Pernis all my life, in the middle of the port and the industrial complexes, and I have never felt unsafe. Of course, Shell is our neighbour and all sorts of ships pass by, but I think that is an acceptable risk. I get the impression most people in the village feel that way. Those fires at Shell last summer? They were just industrial accidents. I lived here back in the days when we heard fire alarms being sounded every week. A little later, we’d find out that everything was all right because of the ‘Fire under control’ signal. So I don’t get worried that easily.’

Hans Drenthe from Hoogvliet
‘I don’t look over my shoulder every day, but I am aware of the risk we run here. The fires at Exxon and Shell confirmed that. I’m particularly concerned about access. If something is going on, it’s hard to get out of Hoogvliet. The Spijkenisser Bridge is often open, we are not allowed to use the Botlek Tunnel and the Botlek Bridge often suffers service interruptions. I like living here and I don’t want to move, but I do hope they will do something about that. That would make me feel safer.’