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March 24, 2009

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Total liable for Buncefield damages

Oil company Total must pay damages caused by the explosion at the

Buncefield oil-storage terminal in Hertfordshire, a High Court judge

has ruled.

The hearing centred on a dispute between Total and energy company, Chevron, as to which party should be liable for the acts of negligence of the supervisor on duty, Graham Nash, when the explosion occurred on the night of 10/11 December 2005.

Chevron argued that Total was liable, and was supported by HOSL — the joint-venture company owned by the disputing parties. Total contended that HOSL was the nominated ‘operator’ of the site, and thus should bear responsibility.

Delivering his judgement on 20 March, Justice David Steel ruled that Total had “failed to discharge the burden of establishing that HOSL was responsible for the negligence of Mr Nash”.

Justice Steel continued: “All instructions relating to the safe operation of the Buncefield site were promulgated by Total in accord with standards adopted by Total for all terminals, which it regarded as being operated by Total. . . I am satisfied that Total had control of tank-filling operations.

“Total’s perception of it being the de-facto operator of the whole site is exemplified by the statutory notice dispatched to the HSE under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (COMAH). The safety report was prepared by Total. It was sent in without notice to the HOSL board. Indeed, a copy was not furnished to the directors.”

The explosion, which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale, and destroyed 20 businesses, rendered 60 others unusable, and caused damage to a lot of local housing, has generated claims in excess of £750m. It occurred after a tank receiving unleaded motor fuel overflowed, which caused a mist cloud to develop within an area in which there was a number of ignition sources.

Justice Steel described the practices in the control room as “at best, sloppy”, adding: “Handover sheets were lacking detail, variable alarms were seldom used, direction indicators on the Motherwell system (an automated control and tank-gauging
system) were almost never used, calculations of time to completion were recorded, if at all, on scrap pieces of paper. There was, in particular, an overall want of planning and monitoring of filling operations.”

Following the ruling, Total said in a statement: “We greatly regret that the Buncefield incident occurred. We would stress that Total has never sought to avoid its responsibilities as a partner in the joint venture at Buncefield.

“We will continue to make every effort to ensure that significant progress is made to settle outstanding claims and find practical ways to support the local community. Following the incident, Total continues to work with the regulators, the Major Incident Investigation Board, and the oil industry to develop and improve safety in all areas of our business.”

Total, HOSL, as well as three other companies — Motherwell, TAV and BPA — are facing various charges under the HSWA 1974 and the COMAH Regulations 1999 for their role in the explosion. Committal proceedings are not expected before May 2009.

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