French oil giant Total must pay £6.2 million (£3.6 million in fines and £2.6 million in costs) while British Pipeline Agency Ltd and Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd hit with fines of £780,000 and £2.4 million respectively.

Judge Sir David Calvert-Smith, sentencing at St Albans Crown Court, 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.”

Total’s fines for safety breaches are the second highest ever. UK company secretary Lee Young apologised “to all those who have been affected by the incident” adding that the firm fully accepted “our responsibilities for the events that took place at Buncefield in 2005”.

Two other companies – TAV Engineering Ltd and Motherwell Control Systems 2003 – were each fined £1,000 and ordered to pay costs of £500.

The explosion on Sunday, December 11, 2005, which injured 43 people, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard 125 miles away.

The cost of the disaster is estimated to be more than £1 billion – the UK’s costliest industrial disaster.

Howard Davidson, of the Environment Agency, said: “As a result of a successful investigation and prosecution, five companies have today been held to account for their failures.

“The Buncefield blast shattered the local community and left a long-term legacy of pollution. It has already involved a five-year clean-up operation and the Environment Agency will be a presence around the site for many years to come.

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

But the scale of the fines angered many. Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning said:

“I am deeply disappointed at the leniency of the financial fines.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.

“I will be using the powers I have as an MP to ask the Attorney General if he thinks that the sentence has been unduly lenient. Frankly these fines are an insult to my constituents.”

David Gibbs

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