FEARS have been raised over plans to downgrade manpower at an aviation fuel depot on the outskirts of Chester.

The kerosene storage facility in Backford, run by the Government's Oil and Pipelines Agency, is linked to the Stanlow refinery.

And it forms part of the Government Pipelines and Storage System (GPSS) network, which runs east-west to storage depots in Humberside.

The facility, which supplies Manchester Airport and MoD facilities in Plumbley and Goostrey, has always maintained a low profile because of the risk of terrorism but now a whistleblower has contacted The Chronicle over security fears.

The anonymous caller said there were plans to reduce the number of site operators from two to just one person at night, with fears over a possible technical failure or intruders given its proximity to homes in Upton and Chester Zoo.

Keith Tribe, quality, environmental, health and safety manager for Unipen, said: 'Unipen manages the Backford North fuel storage depot as well as a number of other storage depots and pipelines on behalf of the Oil and Pipelines Agency. These depots store aviation kerosene.

'Tankage at Backford is constructed to a robust standard and operations at Backford are in accordance with the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency.

'The Backford management contract has recently been renewed and a programme of enhancements has been and is being undertaken.

'As a result, the manpower requirements to operate may be reduced by two full-time and one part-time position. These changes will not affect the safe operation of the site and discussions are ongoing with Amicus and the staff regarding the proposals.'

Chris Perkins, contracts and technical manager for the Oil and Pipelines Agency, said £1.5m had been invested at the site over the past two years to automate and install safeguards, meaning fewer staff are now needed.

Mr Perkins said there was round-the-clock electronic surveillance and CCTV at the site and that the pipeline network has never suffered any terrorist threats.

A 'secret bases' website says the Backford site is referred to by locals as the 'Civil Reserve Depot' and adds there is also an old abandoned neighbouring depot known as Butter Hill, which is next door to Chester Zoo.

It says all major RAF and USAF air bases around the UK, together with key installations such as Atomic Weapons Establishments in Alder-maston and Burghfield, are connected into the Government pipeline network, which also links into various commercial pipeline systems.