UK fuel depot explosion an 'accident': Total

12th December 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 12 (AFP) – The French oil company Total on Monday denied speculation that a fuel leak was the cause of explosions and a blaze at a fuel depot in Britain that it jointly owns with the US group Texaco.

PARIS, Dec 12 (AFP) – The French oil company Total on Monday denied speculation that a fuel leak was the cause of explosions and a blaze at a fuel depot in Britain that it jointly owns with the US group Texaco.

"Total formally denies these rumours that come from an account by a employee for a company working for Total who, while at the depot three weeks ago, thought he saw a fuel leak when in fact it was a fire test exercise," a spokesman said.

Asked about the cost of the damage wreaked by the fire at the facility near London, the spokesman said it was "still to early" to say.

"The priority right now is to fight the cloud of smoke that has come from the site," he said.

Firefighters on Monday quenched part of the gigantic blaze that has raged for more than 24 hours at a key fuel depot near London and sent dark smoke — feared by some to be toxic — over southern England and towards France.

The inferno -- which began before dawn Sunday, leaving 43 people injured -- would take an estimated 72 hours to burn itself out.

It appeared to have started accidentally, although the cause remained unknown and clues as to what might have caused it were likely to be consumed in the inferno, police said.

Crews put out fires at 10 of the 20 burning fuel storage tanks just three hours after they launched their long-delayed bid to smother the flames using a "blanket" of foam and water, a fire department spokeswoman said.

Firefighters had initially delayed their work in order to satisfy concerns they would not cause pollution to the area around the depot near Hemel Hempstead, around 40 kilometres northwest of London.

"We were beginning work on the smaller tanks and moving on to the larger fires," a spokeswoman for the Hertfordshire Fire Service said. "We are making good progress. But the next hour will be critical."

Hertfordshire's chief fire officer Roy Wilsher had told a press conference earlier he was not sure the formula would work as Britain or its European neighbors had never had to deal with a fire on such a scale.

"We are in uncharted territory," Wilsher said.

The job was all the harder as firefighters had to contend with swirling winds, Wilsher added.

British newspapers were covered Monday with dramatic photographs of a dark funnel cloud spreading out from the Buncefield oil depot. Fears were growing, especially in the British press, over the toxic nature of the smoke cloud, estimated to be some 230 kilometres wide.

Meteorologists said the smoke "would almost certainly go over to France when the breeze picks up". Doctors warned that the elderly or asthma sufferers could be affected by dust and soot particles, especially near the fire.

Witnesses who saw the first blasts described them in apocalyptic terms, with one likening the scene to "doomsday".

A series of explosions tore sections of walls off buildings in an industrial park, smashed windows and dented doors of homes, ripped tiles from house roofs, burned trees and incinerated at least half a dozen cars over a wide area.

The fire caused widespread traffic disruption including closing down sections of the M1 motorway, a main artery north from London.

Total owns five fuel depots in Britain.

The one that exploded early Sunday -- creating what British fire officials said was the most serious blaze of its type in postwar Europe is held by Total's British subsidiary, Total UK, and Texaco. The depot was able to store up to 150,000 tonnes of fuel, which was distributed to airports in the London area.

Only seven tanks at the depot had remained intact, with firefighters spending the last day cooling them with water to prevent them from exploding.

Hertfordshire Police Chief Constable Frank Whiteley promised a full probe into the fire.

Based on witness accounts, "All indications at this stage are that this was an accident. However, clearly we will keep an open mind," Whiteley told a press conference on Sunday.

Jittery from deadly bombings in the British capital in July, residents and workers in the rural area worried at first that the explosions might have been caused by a terrorist attack, or a plane crash linked to nearby Luton Airport.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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