All five companies prosecuted in connection with the Dec. 11, 2005, explosion and fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury.

Buncefield Defendants Fined $14.5 Million

The December 2005 explosion at the fuel storage depot in Hemel Hempstead, near London, is considered the most costly petrochemical accident ever in Britain, with an estimated total cost of almost $1.5 billion.

A British judge on Friday fined the five companies found guilty in the Buncefield explosion of December 2005 a total of $14.5 million. The $4.5 million fine assessed to Total UK Ltd is the second-highest safety fine ever issued in Britain, and the $1.9 million fine for pollution from the incident is the largest ever issued for pollution.

Speaking during the sentencing at St Albans Crown Court, the judge said the companies had shown "a slackness, inefficiency and a more or less complacent attitude to safety." Along with Total, British Pipeline Agency Ltd, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, TAV Engineering Ltd, and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 Ltd were convicted in the incident following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency. Motherwell was ordered to pay the smallest amount: a $1,500 fine and costs of $765.

The explosion caused 43 injuries and 2,000 people had to evacuate, but no one was killed.

"Five companies have today been held to account publicly for the failings that led to the Buncefield explosion and the devastation that it wrought on the local community and the environment. This is the culmination of a thorough and complex investigation carried out by the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive into Britain's most costly petrochemical accident," the two agencies said in a joint statement.

The incident resulted from an overflow of 250,000 liters of gasoline from a tank after two safety systems, an internal fuel level gauge and an independent cutoff switch, failed. The resulting vapor cloud exploded, causing a fire that consumed 23 fuel tanks and burned for five days. Barriers meant to prevent runoff of fuel and firefighting chemicals also failed, the investigating agencies said.

"Incidents like the explosion at Buncefield are exceptionally rare -- but they should not happen at all," added Kevin Myers, HSE's deputy chief executive. "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."

Howard Davidson, Thames Director at the Environment Agency, said the explosion "shattered the local community and left a long-term legacy of pollution. It has already involved a five-year cleanup operation by the oil companies involved, and the Environment Agency will be a presence around the site for many years to come.

"There should be no doubt," Davidson added, "that we will always seek to prosecute those who cause serious pollution and damage the environment for future generations."

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