A UK crown court on Friday ordered five companies to pay £9.5 million [press release] in damages relating to the 2005 Buncefield oil storage depot explosion [investigation website; case materials], which has been described as the most costly industrial accident in the UK. Total UK, a subsidiary of French oil company Total [corporate websites], was ordered to pay £3.6 million, the second largest fine ever to be levied in the UK for safety offenses. In ordering the fines, the judge said the companies had shown, "a slackness, inefficiency and a more or less complacent attitude to safety." An investigation into the Buncefield explosion [materials] found that a series of safety lapses by the companies resulted in the release of thousands of gallons of oil that formed a vapor cloud. The cloud ignited causing an explosion that injured 43 and caused widespread damage to local businesses. The offices of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency [official websites] conducted the joint investigation into the incident and issued a statement [press release] urging corporations to act responsibly:
Society rightly demands the highest of standards from the high hazard industries. The risks created by these businesses must be managed effectively because when things go wrong in this sector, the consequences are severe and can destroy lives, shatter local communities and cause damage to the environment that lasts for generations. ...From the Board room down companies must ask themselves these questions: do we understand what could go wrong; do we know what our systems are to prevent this happening; and are we getting the right information to assure us they are working effectively.The court also levied fines against Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, TAV Engineering Ltd, Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd and British Pipeline Agency Ltd.
Total oil has recently faced a series of high-profile legal challenges. In April, a French judge charged Total with bribery and complicity [JURIST report] in connection with a scandal involving the UN's Iraq Oil-for-Food program [official website; JURIST news archive]. The company denied the allegations, stating that the company followed UN policy and acted lawfully [text, PDF]. In March, the Paris Appellate Court [official website, in French] upheld a lower court's 2008 decision finding Total and several other defendants criminally liable for an oil spill [JURIST report] that occurred of the coast of Brittany in 1999. The court also increased the fine against the defendants from 192 million euros to 200 million euros. Over 20,000 tons of oil [Euronews report] seeped from an oil tanker called Erika, which Total chartered from an Italian company, decimating 400 kilometers of coastline and causing harm to wildlife. Total has indicated that it plans to appeal the judgment [Reuters report].