MP calls Buncefield blast fines 'an insult'

Campaigners and politicians today criticised the "leniency" of multi-million pound fines imposed on the companies responsible for the Buncefield oil depot explosion.

Five companies were ordered to pay almost £10 million in combined fines and costs following the blast - the largest in peacetime Europe.

Total UK were fined £3.6m plus £2.6m costs, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL) £1.45m plus £1m costs and British Pipeline Agency (BPA) Ltd £300,000 plus £480,000 costs.

Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd and TAV Engineering Ltd were both fined £1,000 and each ordered to pay £500 in costs.

The explosion, on Sunday December 11 2005, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard 125 miles away.

Sentencing at St Albans Crown Court, Mr Justice David Calvert-Smith said: "Had the explosion happened during a working day, when large numbers of people would have been at premises close to the site, whether outside or inside, the loss of life may have been measured in tens or even hundreds."

The Environment Agency (EA) said the £1.3 million in fines for pollution offences were a record for a single incident in the UK.

And the £3 million penalty imposed on Total was the second highest to be handed down for safety offences.

But the fines were greeted with anger following the hearing.

Solicitor Des Collins, representing many affected by the explosion, said the sentences were "hardly even a slap on the wrists for endangering the lives and livelihoods of so many".

He said: "The sentences in this case do not even begin to punish the companies, given the extent of some of their profits. Total's fine, plus court costs, is around 0.003% of its profits in the first three months of this year."

Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning branded the fines an "insult" and said he would ask Attorney General Dominic Grieve to assess whether they were too lenient.

He said: "Over £1 billion worth of damage was done to my constituency, so how is a fine of £5.35 million justice?

"None of this money will compensate my constituents who are still waiting for compensation for having their businesses, lives, homes and health destroyed by an industrial disaster which should never have happened and was obviously completely preventable."

Richard Bretton, head of health and safety at law firm Osborne Clarke, said many would question whether the fines imposed were sufficient.

"Many people will be wondering why these fines are not in the tens of millions," he said.

The packed courtroom was told the name Buncefield would be forever linked to the explosion.

The destruction at the Hertfordshire depot came after a massive vapour cloud ignited when 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from one of its tanks.

People living nearby suffered significant damage to their homes, with windows blown in and doors blown off their hinges.

Residents described the impact as being "like an earthquake" and lawyers said it was "miraculous" that nobody was killed.

Many businesses were affected, some so badly that they were forced out of business.

Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said the after-effects of the blast had taken a huge toll on the local community.

"Apart from the short or medium-term physical injuries and the much longer term emotional and psychological injuries suffered by those close to the explosion, families have had to cope with disruption to education, to employment and, so far as home owners are concerned, to a dramatic drop in the value of their homes, even when repaired," he said.

TAV Engineering Ltd, of Guildford, Surrey, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd, which is in voluntary liquidation, were both found guilty last month of failing to protect workers and members of the public, contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL) was found guilty of failing to prevent major accidents and limit their effects.

It also pleaded guilty to causing pollution to enter controlled waters underlying the vicinity around Buncefield, contrary to the Water Resources Act.

The verdicts followed a joint prosecution by the HSE and the EA, which the bodies described as the "biggest and most complex criminal inquiry" they worked on together.

Total UK had already pleaded guilty to three charges - of failing to ensure the safety of workers and members of the public and of causing pollution to enter controlled waters.

British Pipeline Ltd also admitted two charges in connection with the explosion - failing to prevent major accidents and limit their effects, and causing pollution to enter controlled waters.