BBC website20 March 2009
Nearly 4 years after the explosion at the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire, a judgement has been reached on which company was liable for the damages
The depot was owned by Total and Chevron in a joint venture called Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HOSL), but was operated by Total.
The ignition of the vapour cloud which followed the spillage of 300 tons of petrol, caused an explosion which measured 2.4 on the Richter Scale.
The court's view was that "Total had failed to discharge the burden of establishing that HOSL was responsible for the negligence of the supervisor." This was based on the fact that
* All those working at the site had contracts with Total;
* The terminal manager who was the most senior member of staff on site was appointed by Total and line managed by Total.
* All safety instructions were developed by Total.
* Total's head office staff to develop an adequate system for preventing the overfilling of a tank.
In a statement Total said: "We still believe... our joint venture partner should accept their share of the responsibilities for the incident.
"As a consequence we will be considering our grounds for appeal."
The Guardian was more damning of Total, blaming sloppy practices and inadequate risk assessment. Judge David Steel described the events leading up to the blast as "remarkable"
Des Collins, representing a number of claimants said "This judgment is a shocking indictment of the way in which this ultra-hazardous operation was conducted by Total." "What is equally shocking is the degree of irresponsibility demonstrated by Total over the past three years in its failure to recognise the ultimate futility of the series of defences which it adopted."
The court listed various reasons for the explosion, including the negligence of supervisors and a series of failures in risk assessment and prevention. The judge was also critical of a "near miss" at the plant in August 2003.
"I am left with the clearest impression that practices within the control room were at best sloppy," said the judge.
The Financial Times quoted more from Justice Steel including "overall want of planning and monitoring all contributed to the disaster"
Also, that Total declined to call several key witnesses during the civil trial, including the two supervisors on duty at the time and its operations manager.
The only director of the depot’s operating company that did testify was found by the judge to be "somewhat evasive and unwilling to face up to the difficulties of reconciling his evidence with the contemporary material".
The court was told during trial that there had already been a “near-miss” at the site when a tank gauge stuck in August 2003.
The supervisors working on the night of the 2005 explosion, were "somewhat ironically" awarded certificates of competency less than a week before, the judgment notes.