Oil giant Total pleads guilty in Buncefield case

In the News

Lawyers believe Total's sentencing could set a precedent for environmental incidents which do not lead to fatalities

Oil company admits guilt and expresses ‘regret’ over safety breaches after oil depot explosion that caused injuries and environmental damage

The oil company Total has pleaded guilty to two charges of health and safety breaches and one of causing pollution following the explosion at Buncefield oil depot in 2005.

Total admitted ‘failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees; failing to ensure the health safety and welfare of those not in their employment; and causing polluted matter to enter controlled waters’.

The charges were brought by the Environment Agency (EA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following an investigation into the explosion on 11th December, 2005 which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and caused 43 minor injuries and resulted in groundwater and soil contamination from fuel, firewater and foam - the subject of a 2007 Ecologist investigation.

Sentencing next year

Sentencing will now be delayed until cases involving four other companies – Hertfordshire Oil Storage, British Pipeline Agency, TAV Engineering and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 – are concluded. 

All of these companies, except Motherwell Control Systems, which is now in administration, have pleaded not guilty.

Environmental precedent

Claire Brook, Senior Counsel in the environmental practice of law firm Dickinson Dees, believes next year’s sentencing could set a significant precedent.

‘The sentence given to Total is likely to set a new benchmark for environmental incidents which do not lead to fatalities,’ she said.

‘Cases such as Transco and the rail disaster cases resulted in large fines because of fatalities and serious injuries. In the case of Buncefield it is likely to be environmental damage and the risk of harm to the public and the environment which will inform sentencing.’

Setting an example

She continued: ‘The court is also likely to make an example of Total in light of new sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter which seek to make companies and their executives more accountable for their failings.'

Following the guilty plea, Total issued a statement saying it ‘regretted the incident and apologised to those affected.’

Total was also found liable for property damage as a result of the explosion in civil proceedings in March. The company has appealed the verdict, claiming that other parties should share responsibility for the damages payable.   

Redevelopment of the site

Meanwhile, Total UK has submitted a planning application to redevelop the Buncefield site. It is currently in consultation with local residents and other bodies including the EA and HSE. 

The Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive declined to comment whilst criminal proceeding against the other parties involved in the case are outstanding.

Behind the label focus: PFOS
Firefighting foam laced with this toxic chemical was used to extinguish the Buncefield oil depot inferno, leaving a deadly legacy. Was it necessary? Mark Anslow investigates
Palm oil firms letting four-year-olds sign contracts
'Chaotic' legislation in Indonesia is allowing palm oil plantation companies looking to produce biofuel to bully local people off their land
National Grid plan for local waste-to-biogas plants
Electricity operator National Grid believes that with the right Government incentives, renewable gas could be produced from our waste and fed straight into the mains
UK Government 'misleading' public on air pollution
UK ranked amongst the worst polluters in Europe for airborne particles and nitrogen dioxide
Carbon capture no solution to tar sands
Even the most optimistic forecasts for the potential of CCS technology to reduce CO2 emissions are not enough to make the development of tar oil sands comparable with other fossil fuels, says a new report

More from this author