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July 16, 2010

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£5.3m fine for Buncefield devastation

Five companies have been fined a total of £5.35m with £4.08m in costs over the Buncefield Oil Storage Depot explosions in Hemel Hempstead, in December 2005.

Three companies – Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HOSL), which was responsible for the overall operation of the site, TAV Engineering Ltd, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd – stood trial. Two other firms, British Pipeline Agency Ltd and Total UK Ltd, the latter of which was responsible for day-to-day operations at the site, pleaded guilty to charges over the incident, which was caused by 250,000 litres of petrol leaking from a tank.

Sitting today (16 July) at St Alban’s Crown Court, the judge said: “Had the explosion happened during a working day, the loss of life may have been measured in tens, or even hundreds.”

He levied the largest penalty on Total UK Ltd, whose total fine and costs amounted to £6.2m. The full breakdown of fines and costs is:

  • Total UK – fine £3.6m (£3m for safety and £600,000 for pollution); costs £2.6m;
  • HOSL – £1.45m (£1m for safety and £450,000 for pollution); costs £1m;
  • British Pipeline Agency – fine £300,000 (for environmental offences); costs £480,000;
  • TAV Engineering – fine £1000; costs £500;
  • Motherwell Control Systems 2003 – fine £1000; costs £500.

At the trial, which ended in June, HOSL was found guilty of failing to prevent major accidents and limit their effects, contrary to reg.4 of the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) Regulations 1999, and s33(1)(c) of the HSWA 1974.

TAV Engineering Ltd, a dormant company, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd, currently in liquidation, were found guilty of breaching s3(1) and s33(1)(a) of the 1974 Act at the same trial hearing.

At separate hearings held last year, British Pipeline Agency Ltd (BPA), which was responsible for the UKOP-owned pipeline facility at Buncefield, pleaded guilty to breaching reg.4 of COMAH 1999 and s33(1)(c) of the HSWA, while Total UK Ltd admitted to failures under s2(1) and s3(1) of the 1974 Act.

Both Total UK and BPA also pleaded guilty for causing fuel and firewater chemicals to enter controlled waters underlying the vicinity of Buncefield, contrary to sections 85(1) and (6) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

The £1.3m in fines for pollution caused by the incident are a record for the UK, while the £3m fines for Total are the second highest to be handed down for safety offences.

Following the sentence, HSE deputy chief executive, Kevin Myers said: “Incidents like the explosion at Buncefield are exceptionally rare. However, society rightly demands the highest of standards from the high-hazard industries. Businesses in this sector must manage the risk they create effectively because when things go wrong, the consequences are severe and can destroy lives and shatter local communities.”

He continued: “Major-hazard industries must learn the lessons of events like this. From the boardroom 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?”

Total UK’s head of legal Lee Young described Buncefield as “an unprecedented incident from which we and the industry have learnt many lessons”. He added: “On behalf of Total UK, I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate how sorry we are to all those who have been affected by the incident.”

BPA says it has made a number of operational refinements including: reconfiguring tanks to improve safety distances, installing the latest safety equipment, and improving fuel and water containment facilities and fire-fighting capabilities.

The explosions at the Hertfordshire site during the early hours of 11 December 2005 could be heard as far afield as France and Belgium, and generated a plume of smoke visible from space.

No one died in the incident, largely owing to its occurrence at a time when few people were on the site. However, the explosions caused injuries to more than 40 people, destroying 350,000 sq. ft and leaving 200,000 sq. ft of commercial space in need of repairs.

For a detailed explanation of the events leading up to the incident and the failures of the five companies, click here.


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13 years ago

One interesting lesson to re-learn from this disaster is that where there are major facilities of this type there is scope for a catastrophe, even when run by the biggest, best known and supposedly highly competent organisations. How many of the businesses whose premises were blown to bits or were badly damaged by the explosion are still running? Of those that failed, how many will get adequate compensation and how long will it take the owners. or ex owners, to get it. If compensation is paid out, will most of it end up in the hands of administrators of the… Read more »

13 years ago

The level of fine is just a drop in the ocean to a firm like Total UK.

13 years ago

Unbelievable that nobody was hurt. I think the fines are significant enough and lets hope the lessons have been learned.