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French court fines Total unit and jails former manager for 2001 Toulouse blast

25 September 2012

Eleven years after one of France's worst industrial accidents, a court fined a subsidiary of oil giant Total on September 24 over a chemicals plant explosion that killed 31 people and injured 2,500. The appeals court in the southwestern city of Toulouse found the Total subsidiary, owner of the AZF factory, guilty of manslaughter, and jailed the plant's former manager for one year.

Judge Bernard Brunet fined Grande Paroisse, the Total subsidiary that owned AZF, 225,000 euros ($292,300) but dismissed calls to rule against Total itself.

The explosion at an ammonium nitrate storage depot on September 17, 2001, was equivalent to an earthquake of magnitude 3.4, according to a French public health and safety agency, the Institut de Veille Sanitaire (INVS).

It razed the AZF plant, on the southern outskirts of Toulouse, and shattered windows many kilometres from the scene.

Coming days after the attacks on New York and Washington, on September 11, 2001, there was some initial concern that the blast had been a terrorist attack, but that notion was not accepted by the court.

Judge Brunet said the manager in charge of AZF at the time, Serge Biechlin, was aware of the dangers of the products handled at the plant and did not take sufficient precautionary measures.

"This court declares Serge Biechlin and Grande Paroisse guilty of involuntarily causing death, through carelessness, inattentiveness, negligence, breach of security obligations or outright error," Brunet said.

Biechlin was given a three-year jail sentence with two years of it suspended.

A defence lawyer working for both Biechlin and Grande Paroisse said he would contest the ruling in the Cour de Cassation, a court that rules on issues of how the law was interpreted rather than the facts of a case.

"This affair is only beginning," said lawyer Daniel Soulez-Lariviere.

Some of those killed were AZF employees but others were from companies to which certain operations at the AZF site had been outsourced.

The INVS health and safety agency has reported a higher frequency of hearing and psychological difficulties in the region since the blast.

Since the blast, Grande Paroisse has paid out more than two billion euros ($2.7 billion) in compensation to more than 16,000 victims, according to Total's figures.

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