A CONSERVATION group has called for an investigation after 20 barrels of oil spilled into Southampton Water from a refinery pipeline.

As reported yesterday, round three cubic metres of heavy volume gas oil leaked into the sea from Esso Fawley’s Marine Terminal while a ship was being unloaded.

Last night, the Environment Agency was continuing to investigate the incident while specialist teams were using booms and absorbent pads to contain the toxic substance.

There were fears that Titchfield Haven nature reserve could be affected and one stretch of beach between Hill Head Sailing Club and Meon Shore became a no-go area for the public after oil washed ashore.

Now the Solent Protection Society has called for an independent safety assessment of the refinery, adding that the spill “could have been disastrous”.

Its oil expert Tom Young said: “This is a wake-up call and the result of it is that we would like to ask the company when they last had an independent assessment including the effects of ageing equipment. The refinery is 60 years old and the largest in the UK.

“If enough time has passed since the last one, we would ask for another assessment to take place and the findings should be made public.”

A “tier two” response was set in motion after the spill, which happened when a tanker was unloading on Sunday night.

But despite moves to keep it contained, a brown slick of the refined product had soon been discovered on the shore between Warsash and Solent Breeze.

The Environment Agency said it was also on the scene to collect evidence that may lead to a prosecution and to ensure the effect on the environment was minimised.

The response operation away from the refinery was led by a team including Southampton harbour master Philip Holliday.

It comes just days after the Daily Echo questioned whether a disaster on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak catastrophe could ever happen in Hampshire.

Two major oil terminals sit on the banks of Southampton Water. The Fawley refinery alone handles some 22 million tonnes of crude a year.

As previously reported, the most recent close call occurred in February last year when a vessel loaded with 35,000 tonnes of jet fuel crashed into two oil tankers after its pilot “lost control”.

Esso has said it contacted all the necessary agencies after the latest incident and have been “diligently” checking the shoreline for further traces of oil.

Additional reporting by Pete Law.

Why so long to be told about this?

THE worst affected area was at Meon Shore, Hill Head, near Fareham.

Fareham Borough Council leader Councillor Sean Woodward was last night furious that it took Esso some ten hours to alert the council to the spill.

He said the council was notified at 7.30am by which time the brown oil slick had already washed ashore.

The council’s environment team closed the beach, which is popular with walkers and swimmers, at midday. It was not until 3.30pm that Esso dispatched the clean-up crew from Trant engineering.

Half an hour later Cllr Woodward was informed that the oil was in fact carcinogenic and dangerous to inhale.

The clean-up crew who had been shovelling the oil deposits without protective gloves were ordered to stop.

By 5pm the operation had resumed and the road leading to Meon Shore had closed.

Cllr Woodward said: “I have been told that it’s carcinogenic and that it’s most dangerous in an aquatic environment. It’s disappointing to find out some ten hours after it happened and I think it’s a bigger incident than Esso first believed.”

“I want to know why it took so long for us to be told about the accident and why it took even longer to tell us how dangerous the chemical is. Had we been told earlier we would have closed the beach quicker.”

Esso declined to comment last night.