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The Observer: Who's to blame for the big bang?

As families suffering from the multiple effects of the Buncefield oil depot blast wait for compensation, no one is accepting responsibility, reports Jon Robins
Sunday January 29, 2006

Sixty families who were injured or suffered damage to their homes in the Buncefield fuel depot explosion have begun legal action in the High Court against one of the oil companies operating from the site.
It's now seven weeks since the huge blast at the depot in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, registered 2.9 on the Richter scale but there has yet to be any acknowledgement of responsibility by the oil companies to their devastated neighbours.
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL), a joint venture between Texaco and Total that operates on the site, told Cash last week: 'HOSL continues to work closely with the Health and Safety Executive [HSE] and the Environment Agency in their investigation to ascertain the cause of the incident and in the clean-up at the site. It is not possible to speculate about the cause of the incident or liability at this stage, and it is recommended that all people affected notify their own insurers, who will advise them on the most appropriate way to proceed.'
The British Pipeline Agency (BPA), a joint venture between BP and Shell, which also operates from Buncefield, issued a statement via City law firm Freshfields. It said its client 'has no reason to believe that it was responsible for the incident and refuses to accept any liability in this regard'.
Local homeowners, frustrated by the lack of positive response from the industry, lodged a litigation order again HOSL on Friday. Bill Burgar, managing director of a computer telephony company who has lived next to the site for 10 years, is one of those joining the legal action. 'We were woken up by what sounded like a jet engine, then a massive explosion,' he said. 'My immediate reaction was that there had been a terrorist strike.' About 2,000 people were evacuated after Britain's fifth-largest fuel distribution depot went up in flames. More than 100 families were rehoused. While, miraculously, only 50 people were injured, some residents claim to have been traumatised and many want to move on, but fear no one will want to live next door to the depot that became 'Britain's biggest blaze in peacetime'.
The explosion blew the plasterboard ceiling down on Burgar and his wife. They then went into 'autopilot', putting into effect an evacuation plan to make sure they and their two daughters, Alex and Charlie (five and seven), were out of the house quickly. Burgar had complained many times about the smell of petrol vapour and was so worried about safety at the depot that he was preparing to sell the house in the new year. As he ran to get the children, he saw the extent of the devastation, only 800 yards from the house. 'Flames were spread across half the horizon. I reckon they were already 400ft high. We were aware there were a lot more oil tanks, so another explosion was very likely. It was terrifying.'
The family have yet to return to the property for more than a day – they are living in a rented house a few miles down the road, paid for by their insurer, Norwich Union, while work is being done on their home, which Burgar estimates will probably take six months. But what about their plans to move? At the beginning of December their house was valued at £625,000 but a surveyor has just valued it at half that. 'We aren't going to be able to sell it now,' said Burgar. 'None of us are sleeping well and the slightest noise wakes us up. The children don't want to go home.'
Rachel Lampey, who works at Tesco, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and has been signed off work since 11 December. 'I've been suffering nightmares and undergoing counselling, as has my husband,' she said. 'The children have lost their appetite and had nightmares. Normally they are happy and independent, but it was only for the first time last week when I could leave them without them clinging on to me in tears and screaming.' She reckons somebody must be held responsible if only to make sure history does not repeat itself. 'This isn't the only depot in the country.'
Insurers, such as Halifax Home Insurance, sent staff to Hemel Hempstead within hours of the explosion to advise policyholders. 'We had many customers whose houses were uninhabitable and there was cover for alternative accommodation plus any damage that was the result of an explosion and subsequent fire,' said Martin Folds, senior manager in Halifax's claim team.
But what are the chances of compensation for the value of a house being halved or for an accident claim? 'Our policy can only pay for repair to any physical loss or damage resulting from the explosion,' said Folds. 'Obviously we sympathise, but the policy would not respond for loss of value like that.'
Des Collins, a solicitor acting for the 60 families, argues that the oil companies should accept liability under the law of nuisance. If landowners take something on to their land which is potentially dangerous they automatically bear responsibility for any damage, without the victim having to demonstrate negligence.
'People can't accept that the industry which blew their houses apart is fighting shy about saying whose fault it was or how they are going to be compensated,' said Collins. 'They have to accept responsibility.'
The BPA argues that the HSE has yet to report on its investigation into the incident and that it is, in the view of its lawyers, 'wholly inappropriate' to talk about liability at this stage.
Collins is calling for a public inquiry. 'We do not feel that the HSE is sufficiently independent, bearing in mind their role will also have to be subject to scrutiny. After all, they sanctioned the site being where it was in the first place and carried out a risk assessment and ultimately are responsible for it being there. That's a pretty big conflict of interest.'

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