Flixborough Chemical Disaster – 1974

People characterized as NIMBYs (‘Not In My Back Yarders’) are the curse of would-be developers everywhere. They are often dismissed as selfish by said developers, who counter with the argument ‘but it has to go somewhere’. Yet NIMBYs often have genuine cause for concern, and so it proved when the residents of Flixborough near Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire fought and lost the battle to prevent a major chemical plant from being sited close to the village in the 1960s.

The chemical factory produced caprolactam, used in the manufacture of nylon. This process involved the oxidation of cyclohexane, by combining benzene with hydrogen in six linked reactors. When a crack was discovered in one reactor, a large bypass pipe was installed so repairs could be effected. At 16.53 on June 1 1974, a Saturday, this temporary pipe ruptured. A volatile vapor cloud formed as 40 tons of cyclohexane leaked out in seconds. Almost instantly, this found an ignition source and a massive explosion demolished the plant and killed 27 employees.

Nearly 2,000 buildings in the surrounding area were ‘destroyed or damaged and the wrecked chemical plant blazed for ten days before the fires were finally extinguished. Those apprehensive NIMBYs were proved tragically right when Flixborough village suffered severe structural damage, as did the neighboring communities of Ameotts and Burton-upon-Stather. There was even significant damage reported in Scunthorpe, 13 km (8 mi) away.

Despite their case being validated in such dramatic fashion, Flixborough’s NIMBYs were again ignored – the ruin was rebuilt and resumed production.

But market forces achieved what locals had failed to do.

Demand for nylon declined and the plant became commercially unviable. It was demolished in 1981 and the site is now occupied by an industrial estate.

When: June 1 1974

Where: Flixborough, North Lincolnshire (formerly Humberside), UK

Death toll: 28 (Including a driver who died of a heart attack), with 36 seriously injured

You should know: Despite the tragic loss of life at Flixborough, it could have been so much worse – had the plant explosion not occurred at the weekend, the entire workforce of over 500 people would have been killed.

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