AS forecast several weeks ago by workers and their union representatives, the doomed Coryton oil refinery has been sold to a conglomerate including Shell - and is to be reborn as a terminal.
There is speculation the terminal could be run by as few as 50 employees, mean more than 800 people will be put out of work.
The news came in a week when protesters against the refinery closure were arrested after clashing with police outside the West Thurrock terminal of Vopak - another of the companies in the deal to buy Coryton.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrators of Petroplus - the Swiss-based company that owned the plant that went bust at the turn of the year - announced on Tuesday that Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Royal Vopak NV and Greenergy Ltd have agreed to buy the majority of the assets of Coryton refinery to turn it into an import and distribution terminal to be managed by Vopak.
The sale will be completed within several months, once the current refinery closure process has been concluded, the administrators said. They added there will be no change to the redundancy plans announced earlier with 180 jobs to be cut by the end of this week and further jobs are expected to go over coming weeks.
A source at Coryton says staff have been told that the site will be ‘cleared’ of employees by September.
That depressing news is in stark contrast to a bullish approach from energy minister Charles Hendry, the man blamed by most for “turning his back on the Coryton workforce.”
He said he was seeking to help affected workers, but stressed there would be substantial investment in the site by its new owners, with plans for some recruitment.
He added: “There is some comfort in this announcement for the local community.
“Vopak, Greenergy and Shell have committed to investing a substantial amount in the site to develop it as a state-of-the-art import terminal.
“This includes paying for enhancements to the infrastructure that will keep the site viable for many years.”
South Basildon and East Thurrock MP Stephen Metcalfe, who started the week optimistically after securing an adjournment debate in the Commons on the plant for Wednesday, 27 June, says he will be pressing ministers to see if there if there is any other option for saving it but admits Tuesday’s announcement means that is unlikely.
He said: “I’m disappointed that the announcement has been made, I can’t pretend I’m not. “I cannot see a way of saving Coryton now but I will be putting that question.”
Unions have been scathing in their reaction to the planned sale. Phil Whitehurst of the GMB union said: “Even at this late stage the Government should step in and knock heads together to keep open a refinery supplying 20 per cent of the fuel for the region. This is because the other refinery owners have an economic interest in seeing it closed for the chance to keep prices high as crude oil prices drop.”
Linda McCulloch, national officer of the Unite union, said it was “devastating news” for the workers, adding: “This will have huge economic consequences, not just in the region, but on the UK economy and will undermine the refining industry.”
Three people were arrested after trouble flared on Monday during a protest over plans to shut Coryton oil refinery.
In an what was to prove an ironic twist, around 70 people gathered outside the Vopak terminal in West Thurrock, in an attempt to disrupt tankers taking fuel from the depot, which is not connected the the failed Petroplus operation at Coryton.
A 20-year-old man from north London and a 20-year-old man from east London were arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police constable. A 36-year-old man from Dagenham was held on suspicion of a public order offence.
Supporters of the workers say they were family and friends of those about to lose their jobs, though it has also been claimed they are left-wing activists.
The men have been released on conditional bail until Saturday, 14 July, while enquiries continue.
An Essex Police spokesman said on Monday: “Essex Police has been working with the protesters since their first peaceful protest at the beginning of the month. We have maintained a constructive relationship with the protest organisers.
“This afternoon’s tension saw protesters seeking to disrupt the business of the terminal and failed to comply with requests to move back to an area which had been agreed suitable by both parties for their protest. Today saw the numbers of protesters increase significantly.”