British court fines 5 companies $14.6 million for massive 2005 explosion at UK oil depot

By Raphael G. Satter, AP
Friday, July 16, 2010

UK court fines 5 firms for massive 2005 explosion

LONDON — A British court fined five companies a total of 9.5 million pounds ($14.6 million) Friday for a massive 2005 explosion at a U.K. oil depot that sent a huge smoke plume drifting across the European continent.

Total UK, a subsidiary of French oil company Total SA, was found liable for negligence and ordered to pay most of it — 6.2 million pounds ($9.5 million).

The explosion at the Buncefield oil depot, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of London, was triggered when tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline were released in a huge vapor cloud. The blast injured 43 people, caused more than 1 billion pounds in damage and registered a magnitude 2.4 on earthquake monitors.

The explosion was the costliest industrial disaster in British history, Britain’s Health and Safety Executive said Friday. Worse casualties were avoided only because the explosion took place early Sunday morning when few people were at work.

Judge David Calvert-Smith said the companies involved — Total UK Ltd., British Pipeline Agency Ltd., Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd., TAV Engineering Ltd. and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd. — had shown “a slackness, inefficiency and a more or less complacent attitude to safety.”

He said the problems at the site were so serious that the disaster could have happened “at almost any hour of any day” and said it was just “short of miraculous” that more people were not injured.

The explosion was triggered when 250,000 liters (55,000 gallons) of gasoline began overflowing from a storage tank, due in part to a failure of two critical safety systems — an internal fuel level gauge and a cut-off switch. The gasoline began evaporating into a super-flammable mist, and when it ignited, it caused the biggest explosion in peacetime Britain.

The explosion tore through 23 fuel tanks on the site and burned for five days. Fire fighting chemicals and special barriers designed to prevent the fuel from spreading also failed, polluting the area and contaminating groundwater.

Some victims of the blast expressed anger at the penalty, saying it represented only a tiny proportion of the oil company’s profits. Local lawmaker Mike Penning said he was “deeply disappointed at the leniency of the financial fines.”

Des Collins, a lawyer representing those affected by the explosion, said many felt the companies had “got away with it.”

“The sentences in this case do not even begin to punish the companies, given the extent of some of their profits,” Collins said. “This is a drop in the ocean to French oil giant Total.”

Total SA made €2.61 billion ($3.46 billion) in the first quarter of this year.

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