When the ship comes in




John Harris


The Guardian


LNG Milford Haven

Today, Milford Haven in Wales takes its first, controversial delivery of liquid natural gas. It will then store, process and pipe it to the rest of the UK. But how safe will it be? John Harris reports


Today, Milford Haven in Wales takes its first, controversial delivery of liquid natural gas. It will then store, process and pipe it to the rest of the UK. But how safe will it be? John Harris reports

The Rough Guide to Wales describes Milford Haven as "one of the world's greatest natural harbours", and quotes lines from Shakespeare's Cymbeline: "How far it is/To this same blessed Milford; and by the way/Tell me how Wales was made so happy as/To inherit such a haven."

The bard had a point - though since the late 1950s, such beauty has been rather sullied by the arrival of big industry: specifically, two massive oil refineries and an oil storage plant, serviced by a regular stream of tankers. The town has a drab, pinched ambience made worse by the fact that the recession has bitten hard: around 30% of Milford Haven's shops are now vacant, meaning that it has one of the emptiest high streets in the UK.

For the past five years a local controversy has bounced in and out of the news, and may be about to reach its conclusion. Today Milford Haven will take its first deliveries of liquid natural gas (LNG). Transported here from Qatar and Malaysia, it will be stored in tanks at two local terminals, re-gasified, and pumped via a huge pipeline through Wales to England. At a cost of around £850m, the aim is to supply around 20% of the UK's demand for natural gas. Despite the importance of the project - Tony Blair visited in the spring of 2007 - there has been little coverage in the media, even in Wales.

I first came here nearly two years ago, to begin a journey along the pipeline - which is now complete and buried underground along its 200-mile length - for a G2 cover story (How green was my valley?, published in April 2007). My guide was 42 year-old Gordon Main, an energised campaigning film-maker who remains the de facto leader of Safe Haven, a local pressure group that awaits the first liquid natural gas delivery - originally due in January - with increasing dread.

Thanks to the beneficence of its owner he and his allies have recently moved into a derelict 19th-century sea fort on the tiny island of Stack Rock, taking with them camping supplies and generators. Getting there is all a bit Blue Peter: at just gone 9am on a freezing weekday, I bounce over the waves in a motorised dinghy, then clamber up long-eroded steps - clinging nervously to a frayed length of rope - into a huge circular courtyard. The spectacle that greets me is somewhere between the movie version of Papillon and the location of a 60s pirate radio station.

Here, Main, Sidney Bracken, 65, Paul Radley, 52, and David Robinson, 63, are cooking an outdoor breakfast, after hanging a huge banner around the ramparts of the fort. In a tribute to the firms involved in LNG at Milford Haven, it reads: "Exxon, BG [British Gas], Total, Qatargas, MHPA [Milford Haven Port Authority] will make LNG ££ but will you be safe? Release the risk reports." When the first ship arrives, they tell me, they will mark the occasion by letting off a second world war air raid siren.

And so to some of the nitty-gritty. Today's delivery will draw close to the largest of Milford Haven's LNG terminals, South Hook - a mere 500m from the fort. The ship will dock at a refurbished oil jetty; chiefly, says Safe Haven, because using a pre-existing site made things much cheaper. The jetty, though, sits in the midst of Milford Haven's main shipping channel, which contravenes the industry guidelines published by the Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators. As Siggto sees it, "locations that already attract other craft, including pleasure craft and fishing vessels, are inherently unsuitable for LNG terminals". In response, Milford Haven's Port Authority claims that such strictures represent only "an ideal" and that it and the companies involved have always followed "best practice".

Gordon Main and Safe Haven have long been worried about the possibility of an accident involving ships en route to South Hook and Milford's other gas installation, the Dragon terminal, close to the village of Waterston. After all, in 1996, a huge tanker called the Sea Empress ran aground in the nearby Cleddau estuary, spilling 72,500 tonnes of oil: a natural disaster, but in terms of risk to human life a picnic compared to the dangers of a large spillage of LNG, which would gasify at speed and form a flammable cloud.

In Milford Haven itself, you do not have to try too hard to hear alarm. Later when I catch a cab from the shoreline back into town, the driver will not give me his name in case his company's reliance on the LNG industry for contract work gets him into trouble. "Everybody's worried about it," he says. "People talk about it all the time. They say it's all safe - but a gas cloud would be flammable, wouldn't it? If something happens to one of the terminals or a tanker, there'll be no Milford."

To get to some of the facts behind the fear, Safe Haven has commissioned a review of the Port Authority's supposed risk assessments by Dr Anthony Cox. A risk management specialist and LNG expert whose CV includes work for public inquiries and official bodies, Cox claims that the Port Authority's reports include "no work relevant to the risk to shore populations". The only report commissioned by the Port Authority "that may have included the potential consequences to the public from large LNG spills", has not been released, he says, "either to the public or even to the local planning authority".

The Port Authority, not entirely surprisingly, is unimpressed. When I talk to its chief executive, Ted Sangster, he assures me that the Authority has commissioned "a whole raft of risk assessments as to the likelihood and the consequences of any collision or incident on the water". He says that though "the consequences of a spill would be potentially significant, the likelihood is very insignificant". He talks about a slew of safety precautions that apply to LNG ships, from mile-long exclusion zones as they enter and exit the harbour to speed restrictions on ships in their vicinity.

When I raise Safe Haven's argument about a lack of dedicated research into the risk to Milford Haven's population from accidents in the harbour, Sangster's basic argument seems to be this: since risks to the public have been looked at in terms of spills from the gas terminals and the jetties that serve them, dangers from an accident in the harbour have effectively already been dealt with.

"The effects and the consequences would be the same," he says, "and in fact, a ship on the water is more distant from the local population."

"That shows a complete failure to understand the properties of liquid natural gas," says Gordon Main. "It's well known that it behaves very differently if it's spilled on water. The whole spill will turn into a flammable cloud much more quickly than it would on land. The fact that he doesn't seem to know that is terrifying.

"And on his second point, the ships servicing the Dragon terminal will pass within 600m of the town. If he's going to reassure anybody, he needs to be a lot stronger on the basic facts."

I leave Main and his allies on Stack Rock, waiting for the first ship. A little mischievously, I ask him: given that the first delivery of gas will soon be here, doesn't he feel like calling it a day? "The world's there to be shaped," he says. "It makes no difference that they've spent millions of pounds on this and it's been finished. If it's in the wrong place and causing risk to people who had no real say about it, it's still wrong. In fact, now it's here, it's more wrong."