The criminal trial of companies accused of safety breaches that led to the 2005 Buncefield oil explosion has begun.
A jury at St. Alban’s Crown Court is hearing charges brought by the Environment Agency and the Health & Safety Executive against Total UK, Hertfordshire Oil Storage, British Pipeline Agency, TAV Engineering and Motherwell Control Systems 2003.
All are accused of breaching health and safety regulations prior to the blast on 11th December 2005, which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and resulted in 43 minor injuries.
Fuel, firewater and foam caused groundwater and soil contamination, which has been linked to a higher incidence of miscarriage in local cattle herds – the subject of a 2007 Ecologist investigation.
Total UK and British Pipeline Agency have already pleaded guilty to ‘failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees’ and ‘causing polluted matter to enter controlled waters’. They will be sentenced following the trial, which could last over two months according to a spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive.
Legal precedent on environment
Lawyers say the sentencing of Total UK, who operated the Buncefield site, could set a precedent in cases that involve exposing people and the environment to risk.
‘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,’ said Claire Brook, Senior Counsel at law firm Dickinson Dees.
Although there were no fatalities as a result of the Buncefield disaster, Brook believes the court may refer to sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter when fining Total UK.
‘The guidelines for corporate manslaughter suggest that shareholders should feel some level of pain if a company makes serious mistakes. The bigger the company, the bigger the fine that is necessary in order to do this,’ said Brook.
‘The court will also want to make it clear that environmental damage is of great significance. Although we have not seen the water contamination that some expected as a result of Buncefield, the potential for harm was huge,’ she added.
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?
Oil giant Total pleads guilty in Buncefield case
Oil company admits guilt and expresses ‘regret’ over safety breaches after oil depot explosion that caused injuries and environmental damage
How the legal system is preventing environmental justice
Individuals and local campaign groups are being prevented from challenging environmental damage because of the potentially crippling cost of legal action
Legal costs review may not help environmental cases
Major judicial report may not help NGOs and individuals challenge environmental damage in courts without facing prohibitive financial risk