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Will there be another Buncefield?

24 March 2009

In a week that has seen the High Court finally apportion blame for the Buncefield disaster of 2005, which injured more than 40 people and caused untold millions of damage, it is perhaps time to reflect on the reasons for such a disaster rather than dwelling on who pays. The case in London’s High Court has settled who will pay the £750 million of damages caused by what has been described as the biggest peacetime explosion ever recorded in Europe.

Will there be another Buncefield?
Will there be another Buncefield?

The case, which has been running since October 2008, was to settle a dispute between Total and Chevron, the joint owners of the Buncefield site operator Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd.

The damages are immense but shouldn’t the real concern be about how industry removes the causes of this terrible disaster? How could such a combination of events have been strung together? The explosion, early on a December morning, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard as far away as the Netherlands. The immediate thoughts of those at the scene were of a terrorist attack. The explosion did, after all, occur on the morning of December 11th

But as the High Court heard, staff at the depot had failed to notice that a tank level gauge had malfunctioned and had therefore not shut off a supply of petrol being pumped from a refinery on Humberside. The tank continued to fill past it capacity when a critical level alarm, intended to be a backup to the level gauge, also failed to trigger. Petroleum began pouring from the tank overflows into a bund area, designed to contain any spillage from the tank. Finally, the weather conditions were such that the petroleum formed a vapour cloud which rolled around the site until it found a source of ignition.

It is difficult to believe that those three situations combined in such a catastrophic manner. A weather inversion on a Winter’s morning is perhaps not uncommon. But for two seemingly unrelated equipment failures to hit the site on the same morning must surely be the result of poor or non-existent maintenance and there avoidable. And then the result of this disastrous combination was apparently overlooked as petrol spilled out of the tank for a period of up to 40 minutes, despite the presence of CCTV equipment.

Mr Justice David Steel found that 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 group that part-owns the tank farm, was cleared of any liability.

The court said Total had failed to discharge the burden of establishing that HOSL was responsible for the negligence of the supervisor. It found that all those working at the site had contracts with Total; the terminal manager who was the most senior member of staff on site was appointed by Total and line managed by Total.

All safety instructions for the site were developed by Total.

Click to see the full story of the verdict

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