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

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Oil giant Total pleads guilty in Buncefield case

Ecologist

13th November, 2009

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.

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