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Buncefield companies fined nearly £10 million

Author : Amy Hollamby

16 July 2010

After five years the five companies whose negligence caused the biggest fire ever seen in peacetime Europe have been sentenced to pay a total of more than £9 million in combined costs and fees. The Buncefield disaster, in south Hertfordshire, in December 2005 is thought to have cost £1bn in damage to property and the environment, as well as lost business and lost jobs in the vicinity.

Buncefield case to close
Buncefield case to close

It is lucky the explosion did not happen during a working day, as the loss of life may have been measured in tens or even hundreds.

Total were fined £3,600,000 plus £2,600,000 costs, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited £1,450,000 plus £1,000,000 costs, British Pipeline Agency £300,000 plus £480,000 costs, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 and TAV Engineering were both fined £1,000 and each ordered to pay £500 in costs.

TAV Engineering and Motherwell Control Systems were found guilty of failing to protect workers and members of the public following an investigation into the explosion and fire at Buncefield Oil Storage Depot on 11 December 2005.

Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL) was found guilty of failing to prevent major accidents and limit their effects. HOSL also pleaded guilty to causing pollution to enter controlled waters underlying the vicinity around Buncefield contrary to the Water Resources Act.

Total UK and the British Pipeline Agency had also admitted health and safety breaches in connection with the explosion.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Environment Agency are the 'Competent Authority' responsible for regulating non-nuclear major hazardous industrial sites in the UK under the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations 1999 (COMAH). As the competent authority, the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency have a responsibility to investigate major incidents and ensure that lessons are learned.

The Health & Safety Executive and the Environment Agency said: "This was the biggest and most complex criminal inquiry we have worked on together - the product of many hundreds of hours of painstaking forensic investigation.

"When companies put workers and members of the public at risk and cause environmental damage we will prosecute.

"When the largest fire in peacetime Europe tore through the Buncefield site on that Sunday morning in December 2005, these companies had failed to protect workers, members of the public and the environment.

"The scale of the explosion and fire at Buncefield was immense and it was miraculous that nobody died. Unless the high hazard industries truly learn the lessons, then we may not be that fortunate in future."

The destruction at the Hertfordshire depot came after a massive vapour cloud ignited when 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from one of its tanks. The blast, widely thought to be the largest explosion in peacetime Europe, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard 125 miles away.

Des Collins, the solicitor for many of the families near Hemel Hempstead’s Buncefield oil following the massive explosion in December 2005, has commented on the sentences of the companies fined: "The sentences handed down today by Mr Justice Calvert-Smith at St. Albans Crown Court to the five companies found to be in serious breach of heath and safety standards at the Buncefield Oil Depot is hardly even a slap on the wrists for endangering the lives and livelihoods of so many.

The explosion in December 2005 was the largest peacetime explosion to date in Western Europe. It serves as a useful reminder to those operating and managing potentially lethal energy supply plants and depots, in particular those in areas with a significant population density, that they have no choice but to adhere to the very strictest health and safety standards in both the development of such sites and in the ongoing management of their systems and operations.

The sentences in this case do not even begin to punish the companies, given the extent of some of their profits (Total’s fine, plus court costs, is around 0.003% of its profits in the first three months of this year). This is hardly an incentive to encourage those in management to do everything they can to ensure it doesn’t happen again, given that the largest fine handed out to date in the UK is approximately £15 million. This is a drop in the ocean to French oil giant Total." 

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