In UK Case, Oil Industry Faces Criminal Charges for 2005 Explosion

Safety lapses at issue in Europe's largest peacetime fire 30 miles from central London at Heathrow's fuel depot

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by Terry Macalister, Guardian

The safety practices of oil companies operating in Britain will be highlighted on Tuesday in the conclusion of a criminal case following the 2005 Buncefield oil storage explosion, in which 40 people were injured and 250,000 litres of petrol spilled less than 30 miles from central London.

A joint venture controlled by Total and Chevron, called Hertfordshire Oil Storage, is one of three firms being jointly prosecuted for "failing to take all measures necessary to prevent major accidents" and polluting local water aquifers, under charges pursued by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.

Mr Justice Calvert-Smith will sum up the case at St Albans crown court this week after hearing allegations that workers did not receive the support they needed to do their jobs properly at the terminal, which provides fuel for Heathrow Airport.

Buncefield was Europe’s largest peacetime fire. While no one was killed, 240 people were admitted to accident and emergency departments and 2,000 homes were evacuated. The sound of the explosion was heard on the Continent and a huge plume of black smoke settled over southern England.

The HSE said it could not comment on the case but added: "A spokesman for safety and environment regulators intends to make a statement once the verdict is reached in the first stage of criminal proceedings."

The criminal charges come at a difficult time for the oil industry, with safety under global scrutiny in the aftermath of BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill – the worst of its kind in US history.

Andrew Langdon QC, prosecuting in the Buncefield case, has told the court that employers could have done much more to ensure staff could perform their jobs better at the site, near Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire.

"Supervisors didn’t get much help or protection in what they did. They didn’t get any risk assessments worth their name – pretty essential you might think – how the tanks should be filled, how they should be emptied, what happens with all these considerations," he said.

The storage company is pleading not guilty to two charges. Two others in the dock – TAV Engineering and Motherwell Control Systems – are also pleading not guilty to one separate charge each.

Total, one of the largest oil companies in Europe, has already accepted guilt over three charges of failing to ensure the safety of its staff and allowing fuel and firewater chemicals to enter the ground water system.

The outcome of the case is particularly important for the French company, which has applied for planning permission to redevelop the Buncefield terminal, which it shares with BP.

Total said it had taken into account the findings of an inquiry into the Buncefield fire before submitting its proposal to the local planning authorities. "There would be significantly less tanks than before, with tank sizes standardised wherever possible. The storage of petrol, aviation fuel, household heating fuel, diesel and gas oil is proposed, plus additional tanks for ethanol (a bioadditive to petrol), additives and pipeline interfaces," it said in a statement.

Buncefield used to be the fifth largest oil depot in the UK with pipelines to Humberside and Merseyside plus the capability of filling 400 tanker trucks a day. A part of the terminal owned by BP was also damaged in the blast but was rebuilt and put back into working order.

A report by the Major Incident Investigation Board following the accident demanded the oil industry strengthen safety measures at these kinds of very large fuel storage sites.

(Republished with permission of The Guardian)

(Photo: Robert Stainforth via Wikimedia Commons)