Oil giant Total fined for British depot fire

16th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

French oil giant Total and four other companies responsible for a huge explosion at a British oil depot must pay fines and costs of more than nine million pounds (13.8 million dollars, 10.6 million euros), a court ruled Friday.

Total received the stiffest penalty for the incident five years ago at Buncefield depot in Hertfordshire, north of London, as it was ordered to pay a fine of 3.6 million pounds plus costs of 2.6 million pounds.

The December 11, 2005 explosion measured 2.4 on the Richter Scale and is considered one of the biggest blasts in peacetime Europe. It was reportedly heard as far away as France and Belgium.

The explosion left 43 people injured and forced 2,000 others to leave their homes.

It was one of Britain's most costly industrial disasters -- and only the fact that the explosion took place early on a Sunday prevented a greater catastrophe.

"The failures which led in particular to the explosion were failures which could have combined to produce these consequences at almost any hour of any day," judge David Calvert-Smith said as he sentenced the firms at St Albans Crown Court in Hertfordshire.

"The fact that they did so at 6:01 on a Sunday morning was little short of miraculous.

"So too was the fact that not one of the few people on the site or in the surrounding area on that Sunday morning lost their lives."

Hertfordshire Oil Storage -- a joint venture between Total and US oil giant Chevron -- was fined 1.45 million pounds plus one million pounds costs, while British Pipeline Agency was fined 300,000 pounds plus 480,000 pounds costs.

Motherwell Control Systems 2003 and TAV Engineering were both fined 1,000 pounds each and each were ordered to pay 500 pounds in costs.

Calvert-Smith said that rather than cost-cutting, "this case has more to do with slackness, inefficiency and a more or less complacent approach to matters of safety."

The Buncefield depot, which distributes aviation fuel to airports in the London area, was run by Total UK and Texaco, part of Chevron.

Some 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from the top of a tank and the massive vapour cloud then ignited.

Jurors heard that the extent of the environmental damage was still not known and its effects could last for decades.

Des Collins, representing people affected by the explosion, said the companies had "got away with it" and the sentences were a "drop in the ocean" for Total.

The verdicts followed a joint prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency public bodies.

HSE deputy chief executive Kevin Myers told BBC radio: "The fines pale into insignificance in relation to the billion pounds worth of estimated economic loss and the damage to the reputation of the companies.

"The problem with major hazard industries is that they need to understand that these sorts of events are few and far between but the impact of them can be significant, so they can't take their eye off the ball."

© 2010 AFP

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