LIVES were put at risk from a flash fire when a Russian vessel leaked potentially deadly chemicals at Runcorn Docks.
According to a health and safety report carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), an explosion might have occurred when Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM) leaked out of the gas carrier Coral Acropora in August last year.
The leak happened as the vessel berthed alongside the chloride manufacturer EVC, which is situated on the Manchester Ship Canal at Percival Lane.
Experts discovered the incident might have sparked a flash fire within 50 metres of the release of VCM when crew members ignored vital safety recommendations.
Nine workers from the nearby EVC plant had to be decontaminated and three more were hospitalised when 600kg of liquid and vapour erupted from the vessel's forward cargo tank mast riser.
However, crucially, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the emission of VCM - which has been linked to liver cancer - was unlikely to have caused toxicity.
A spokesman for MAIB said: 'There are a number of negative findings in this report.
'In shipping terms the emission of 600kg isn't a huge amount, however any amount, no matter how small, is a risk and holds health implications.
'The report found there was a danger of flash fire but according to the HSE toxicity wasn't an issue.
'But a lot of studies in America show that long term exposure to VCM can cause cancer over a period of time.
'However if you're sitting directly underneath the emission when the gas leaks out you can suffer symptoms such as damage to the skin and eyes and frostbite.
'There's no doubt this could have been a very, very serious incident.'
More than 30 firefighters attended the scene to set up decontamination tents when the alarm was raised to the flammable gas.
The worst effected victims included two men and a woman who were taken to the Countess of Chester Hospital suffering from tight chests and other health problems.
The report states how the chief officer had walked around the tank dome to stop the alarm sounding assuming it was tripped.
A few minutes later he noticed a large cloud of white vapour heading towards him before activating the emergency shutdown button and reaching the accommodation shelter on deck.
Members of the public were also exposed to VCM as the gas cloud travelled downwind.
Although on paper the vessel carried with it a good operations and safety management system, cargo valves had been left open and safety features had been habitually ignored.
There was also no immediate reply when the master telephoned the ship owner's emergency response number, and the fleet was being managed by multi-national crews who spoke Russian.
Among the damning features of the report, poor operational practices were in place including overloaded cargo tanks.
Crew members were not wearing the proper personal protective equipment and also experienced communication problems as well as inexperience in handling the situation.