Firms responsible for the safety breaches that caused the 2005 Buncefield oil depot explosion and resulting groundwater pollution were fined almost £10M at St Albans Crown Court last week.
Oil giant Total UK was hardest hit. It was ordered to pay £3.6M in fines and £2.6M in costs. Buncefield site operator Hertfordshire Oil Storage (HOS), which is owned by Total and oil company Chevron, was fined £1.45M and ordered to pay £1M costs.
HOS was found guilty of failing to prevent major accidents and of failing to limit their effects.
It also pleaded guilty to causing pollution to enter controlled waters in breach of the Water Resources Act.
Total UK had previously pleaded guilty to three charges including failing to ensure safety of workers and members of the public. No-one died in the incident, but 43 people were injured.
“Accidents like the explosion at Buncefield are exceptionally rare, but they shouldn’t happen at all,” said Health & Safety Executive (HSE) director Gordon MacDonald.
Flames tore through the oil storage depot near Hemel Hempstead on the morning of 11 December 2005 in what is thought to have been the biggest peacetime explosion in Europe. The blast registered 2.4 on the Richter scale and was heard as far away as Belgium.
The court heard that the incident occurred after the failure of a safety switch that shut off the petrol supplies to the storage tanks to prevent overfilling.
As a result, 250,000l of petrol escaped forming a vapour cloud which spread over 190m2 and then ignited.
“We can never put an exact figure on the amount of damage caused, but the clean-up costs will be tens of millions of pounds”
Bunds designed to contain escaping liquid also failed, allowing fuel and firefighting foam to contaminate soil and groundwater in an aquifer 70m below ground.
Perfluorooctane sulphonate from the 750,000l of foam, and benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes - a group of volatile hydrocarbons - and methyl tertiary-butyl ether, which are both found in petrol, have since been found in groundwater below the site.
Environment Agency Thames regional director Howard Davidson said 24 boreholes had been drilled to investigate the underground pollution. Computer modelling is being used to help understand how pollutants have travelled through the groundwater. Pollutants have been found up to 2km from the site.
“We can never put an exact figure on the amount of damage caused, but the clean-up costs will be tens of millions of pounds,” said Davidson.
The site operator has been skimming the groundwater to remove contamination and all surface water is being stringently managed.
Regulator the Drinking Water Inspectorate says the water is safe to drink and the Bow Bridge borehole, the nearest to the site, has recently been brought back into operation.
Despite this, the Environment Agency confirmed that chemicals are still present in the water and as rainwater continues to seep through into the aquifer, concentrations will alter.
“The concentration of pollutants has reduced over the past four years but the fact remains if proper controls were taken there shouldn’t have been any pollution,” said Environment Agency environment manager Colin Chiverton.
After last Friday’s sentencing Total UK head of legal and company secretary Lee Young said: “This was an unprecedented incident from which we
and the industry have learnt many lessons.”
“This was an unprecedented incident from which we and the industry have learnt many lessons”
Three other firms were fined as well as Total and HOS. They were British Pipeline Agency - a joint venture between BP and Shell - TAV Engineering, which manufactured the failed safety system and maintenance contractor Motherwell Control Systems.
Many observers were expecting larger fines. Damages from the explosion have totalled around £1bn, according to the HSE. Total UK turned over £5bn last financial year.
The highest ever fine for breaking health and safety law was the £15M imposed on utility firm Transco in 2005.
In that case a massive explosion, caused by gas seeping from holes in a pipe, killed four people.
“Regardless of the fine the fact that five companies have been found guilty shows the importance [for the major hazards industry] to take leadership to prevent further occurrences of environmental damage,” said Chiverton.