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Swains Lane explosion: Investigators probe buried fuel tanks

Fuel tanks, filler pipes and an oil interceptor had been found at former petrol station site in Highgate

23 March, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

The scene of the explosion which killed Stephen Hampton

ATTEMPTS to remove a disused fuel tank from a former petrol station will be at the focus of an investigation into the blast which killed construction worker Stephen Hampton.

Investigators from the Health and Safety Executive – the government-appointed body which pieces together the circumstances around workplace deaths – were joined by police and firefighters scouring the site for clues this week. They would not elaborate further on a statement which said their investigation was ongoing, but their team will be examining what plan had been put in place to safely remove old tanks and possibly reports petrol could be smelt by passers-by in the days before the tragedy.

Until a couple of weeks ago, a small parade of shops had stood at the bottom of Swains Lane, with the site’s petrol station a fading memory to many. The New Journal’s research has found that warnings about what was below ground were flagged up five years ago when another developer checked out the site for a redevelopment scheme that was never realised.


Environmental engineers Harrisons reported back in 2012 that “localised hydrocarbon contamination was suspected adjacent to and beneath the buried tanks and associated pipe-works”, suggesting at one point they may have leaked.

When new developer Noble House came in with its scheme to build nine shops and 12 homes, they too were required to scan the land for potential problems. The Town Hall had made it a condition of planning consent that the site was investigated for possible contamination risks.

Noble House hired site investigation firm Chelmer Consultancy Services, who visited it last October. They reported back that remedial work was required. Their report added: “The site is not considered to pose an unacceptable risk to ground workers, provided that appropriate health and safety protocols are employed.” It stated it would be the responsibility of the owners, Noble House, to make sure this was done according to the requirements of the HSE.

Fuel tanks, filler pipes and an oil interceptor had been found buried beneath the land.

Chelmer also reported that there was a risk to “future site users and residents” and recommended “further action” be taken to protect people from “potential vapours”, adding that “groundworks contractors should also refrain from smoking whilst on site”.

If the tanks were to remain in place, Chelmer recommended that they should be filled with concrete which, if removed, should be “pumped of their liquid contents and degassed by a suitably licensed contractor with appropriate certification provided”. The report added that the tanks could then be dug up and taken away.

Bulldozers finally went in last month to clear the site after developer Noble House recruited demolition company Material Movements for the job, who in turn employed PJL Plant Hire, Mr Hampton’s employer.

Both companies said they could not answer questions about the site while the circumstances of the explosion were still being established. “It is in the hands of the HSE investigation,” Material Movements said.

John Slater, chairman of the Swains Lane Residents Association, who has followed plans to rebuild the parade for over a decade, said they had watched closely how the work was managed – and were fearful of the dangers due to residents reporting a smell of petrol in the air.

He added: “We are very concerned and saddened by what has happened. “People living near the site had smelt fuel fumes. We had been liaising with Noble House but were not aware the removal of tanks was underway.”

Town Hall community safety chief, Councillor Jonathan Simpson, said: “We were deeply saddened to hear a man had died following an explosion on a privately managed building site at Swains Lane. “Our thoughts at this difficult time are with all who knew him. The Health and Safety Executive are responsible for investigating what happened in this case. We will assist them as required and await the investigation’s outcome.”

Noble House said: “The demolition works and removal of the tanks was being undertaken by a specialist company, Material Movements Ltd, who were instructed by our main contractor and had been used by them previously and are well respected in the industry. Whilst the accident is being investigated, we know nothing more at this stage.”

A spokesman from the HSE said: “There is no further comment to make at this stage.”


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