Buncefield oil explosion costs companies £9.5m

Five companies have been ordered to pay £9.5m for their part in the 2005 fire and explosion at the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot in Hertfordshire.

Concluding a four-month trial at St Albans Crown Court, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said the companies had shown ’slackness, inefficiency and a more or less complacent attitude to safety’.

The incident is said to have started at around 05:30 on 11 December 2005 when an industrial petrol storage tank operated by HOSL started to overflow, in part due to a failure of two critical safety systems – an internal fuel levels gauge and the independent cut-off switch.

By 06:00, more than 250,000 litres of petrol spilled out of the tank and formed a vapour cloud, which spread over 190m2. When it ignited the fire tore though 23 fuel tanks on site and burned for five days.

Special barriers designed to prevent run-off of fuel and fire-fighting chemicals also failed, leading to significant pollution to the surrounding area and the groundwater under the site.

The prosecution of Total UK, British Pipeline Agency (BPA), Hertfordshire Oil Storage (HOSL), TAV Engineering (TAV) and Motherwell Control Systems 2003, followed an investigation conducted by the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency.

The investigation uncovered a series of serious failings that led to the release of petrol.

The cost of dealing with the disaster has been estimated at more than £1bn, making it the most costly industrial incident in the UK.

Kevin Myers, HSE’s deputy chief executive, said: ‘Major-hazard industries must learn the lessons of events such as this.

‘From the board room down companies must ask themselves these questions: do we understand what could go wrong; do we know what our systems are to prevent this happening; and are we getting the right information to assure us they are working effectively?’

Fines in full:

Total UK pleaded guilty to three offences and was fined £3.6m (£3m for safety; £600,000 for pollution) and ordered to pay costs of £2.6m

British Pipeline Agency pleaded guilty to three offences and was fined £300,000 for environmental offences and ordered to pay costs of £480,000

Hertfordshire Oil Storage was found guilty of two offences and fined £1.4m (£1million for safety; £450,000 for pollution) with costs of £1m

TAV Engineering, which designed a safety switch that failed, was found guilty of one offence, fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £500 costs

Installation and maintenance company Motherwell Control Systems 2003 was fined £1,000 and ordered to pay costs of £500 after being found guilty of one offence

SOURCE: Environment Agency