IOSH says the most powerful Buncefield explosion is thought to be the largest ever in peacetime Europe. This photo is posted on the site of MP Mike Penning.

British MP Celebrates Buncefield Pleas

Total UK pleaded guilty to charges it failed to adequately manage risks associated with filling and monitoring oil storage tanks at the fuel depot when overfilling caused a powerful explosion in December 2005. MP Mike Penning hopes the pleas will lead to compensation payments to constituents.

Mike Penning, the British member of Parliament who represents Hemel Hempstead, the district that includes the Buncefield Oil Terminal, said he's pleased that Total UK pleaded guilty last week to two charges stemming from the Dec. 11, 2005, explosion and fire there. More than 1,000 firefighters responded to the huge blaze, which was finally extinguished after three days. Forty-three injuries resulted from the blast, which damaged numerous homes in the area north of London.

Total UK, the British unit of France's Total SA -- the fifth-largest publicly traded integrated international oil and gas company in the world -- entered guilty pleas to two counts brought by the Health and Safety Executive under the Health and Safety at Work Act of endangering workers and members of the public by failing to adequately manage risks associated with filling, emptying, and monitoring fuel storage tanks at the depot, which resulted in overfilling of the tanks and the release of flammable materials that caused the explosion. Total UK also pleaded guilty to causing fuel and chemicals to be released into the chalk acquifer beneath the depot.

For co-defendants -- Hertfordshire Oil Storage, Motherwell Control Systems, TAV Engineering, and the British Pipeline Agency -- pleaded not guilty to related charges. Their case could go to trial in April 2010.

"This is fantastic news," Penning said. "I am delighted that common sense has finally prevailed. I very much hope that we will start to see compensation payouts to my constituents, many of whom have suffered so much as a result of the Buncefield explosion. We await the court's ruling on the other cases."

Photos taken during the fire response are posted on Penning's Web site. Total SA has about 97,000 employees and operations in more than 130 countries. IOSH, the 35,000-member Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, says the largest Buncefield explosion is "widely thought to be the largest ever explosion in peacetime Europe . . . measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard 125 miles away."

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