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Total held solely responsible for Buncefield blast

20 March 2009

The High Court has ruled that the oil company Total is liable for the property damage bills of individual and business claimants, caused by the explosion at the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire, at around 6am on Sunday, December 11th 2005, which could be heard from 200km away.

Total held solely responsible for Buncefield blast
Total held solely responsible for Buncefield blast

The Hemel Hempstead site was the scene of an explosion which injured 40 people and left homes and businesses badly damaged.

The blast was the largest in Europe since the end of World War II and was caused by staff on duty failing to notice that a tank gauge had become stuck causing 300 tonnes of petrol to spill over the top of one of the storage tanks.

The tank continued to fill past critical levels after a backup safety switch failed to trigger, causing the plant to fill with petrol vapour. Alerted by a tanker driver to the strong smell of petrol vapour, the supervisor on duty at the time of the incident then shut off the wrong pipeline by mistake. The vapour cloud ignited, and caused widespread damage and injured 43 people.

The trial which began in October 2008 focused on whether Total alone should bear the cost of compensating the victims or whether Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL), the nominated operating company, and Chevron, should share in the cost. Total initially denied responsibility but later admitted that the explosion had partly been the fault of the supervisor on duty at the time and that the damage caused was foreseeable — a key point in establishing legal liability. Total claimed that Chevron should share responsibility for the incident while Chevron, which denies liability, says Total was in day-to-day control at the site.

Following the ruling, Total is facing a payout of hundreds of millions of pounds. The oil company was sued for around £750 million by insurance companies, oil companies and hundreds of local residents following the fire.

Total's UK arm had been negligent in failing to prevent the blast and should alone bear the cost of compensating victims. Chevron, the US oil giant that owns 40% of the tank farm, was cleared of any liability. Total's head office staff had contributed to the explosion by failing to put in place an adequate system for preventing the overfilling of the oil tanks. This was reflected in the absence of written tank-filling procedures for use in the control room following a near miss in August 2003.

The judge said there was a lack of careful monitoring of filling operations and an improper reliance on alarms.

It is to be hoped that Total will now, even at this very late stage, provide to the residents an unqualified apology for their conduct. Chevron, which had with Total already paid out millions in compensation to victims before the case, is now likely to demand reimbursement from Total.

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