The Buncefield explosion on 11 December 2005 led to the largest fire in peacetime Europe. The fallout from the explosion has led to the companies involved being prosecuted for a number of environmental offences and to them receiving record fines.

The Buncefield disaster resulted in a joint prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency (EA) of fi ve companies. The HSE and the EA in their joint statement have explained that “this was the biggest and most complex criminal inquiry we have worked on together….When companies put workers and members of the public at risk and cause environmental damage we will prosecute.”

The five companies were found guilty of a number of health and safety offences. In addition, three of the companies (Total UK Ltd, Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd and British Pipeline Agency Ltd) also pleaded guilty to an environmental offence under sections 85(1) and (6) of the Water Resources Act 1991. This offence was the causing of polluting matter, namely fuel and fi rewater chemicals, to enter controlled waters, namely ground waters, in the vicinity of Buncefi eld. As a result of the pollution, the EA has noted, “The Buncefi eld blast shattered the local community and left a long-term legacy of pollution. It has already involved a fi ve-year clean up operation and the Environment Agency will be a presence around the site for many years to come.”

On 16 July 2010, the companies were sentenced for both the health and safety and the pollution offences. In relation to the breaches of the Water Resources Act 1991, Total UK Limited was fined £600k, British Pipeline Agency Ltd £300k and Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd £450k. The total amount of £1.3m in fi nes for pollution offences is a new record for a single incident in the UK.

It should be noted that, in handing down the sentences for pollution, the court took into account a number of mitigating factors. The absence of these factors would have led to harsher sentences being given. These included:

  • The extent of the pollution was not predictable and no one in the scientific community at the time appreciated the possibility of the formation of, or the consequences of, a vapour cloud explosion
  • Incident response plans were in place to deal with smaller incidents, just not an incident of this magnitude
  • In relation to the allegation that oil tanks were bunded inadequately, expert evidence had been recently sought and a programme of bund improvements was in progress at the time of the incident
  • British Pipeline Agency Limited had an excellent health and safety record and they co-operated fully in the remediation process
  • There had been determined and apparently successful attempts by all parties to remove polluting fl uid from the site and its surroundings.

It is important that companies who have the potential to cause environmental damage pay attention to this trial and learn from its lessons. In particular, the necessity of taking steps to mitigate the damage as quickly as possible. It is noteworthy that the court recognised the parties’ attempts to remove the polluting material in sentencing.