ONE OF Britain’s main underground oil pipelines targeted by fuel thieves in Hampshire remained shut off last night as engineers removed a special tapping device.

As revealed in the Daily Echo, a major investigation is under way after a huge amount of fuel – now confirmed as 38,000 litres – was discovered stored in a rented barn on the outskirts of Romsey. Police and engineers tracked down the supply to a submerged pipeline running 130 miles underground from Fawley Oil Refinery to Birmingham International Airport.

The point at which the tapping device was fitted to the buried pipe by thieves was several hundred yards from the rented barn in Mill Farm Industrial Estate near East Wellow.

The discovery of the stored fuel was made by the unit’s owner, who then raised the alarm six days ago.

Esso confirmed last night that 38,000 litres had been stolen – equivalent to 240 barrels – in what has been described as a “highly dangerous operation”.

But the firm was remaining tight-lipped on how long this had been going on for or how the fuel was transported from the pipeline to the barn, saying it was “a security matter”.

Hampshire police said that two men, aged 32 and 34, who were arrested in Salisbury on Sunday night on suspicion of conspiracy to steal fuel from Esso, have now been released on police bail until July 10 pending further enquiries.

Meanwhile a key part of the UK’s fuel supply infrastructure remained closed last night as a precaution while engineers remove the tapping device that is attached to the pipe.

‘Highly dangerous’ A spokesman for Esso, which operates the pipe, said that “any attempt to interfere with this type of equipment is both illegal and highly dangerous”.

He said: “Esso is committed to the very highest standards of safety and our specialists are now working to remove the tapping device, and repair and test the pipeline and restore it to normal operations as soon as possible.”

It was unclear when the pipeline will be reopened.

Interim alternative supply arrangements have now been put in place to customers that include Birmingham International Airport, one of the UK’s busiest terminals.

Police have previously said that the stolen fuel was diesel, however Esso said last night that the stolen oil was yet to be tested at its refinery in Fawley. Meanwhile the Environment Agency has been on site to make sure there are no leaks which could pollute the ground water and also to advise police.