Buncefield fire was a major conflagration caused by a series of
explosions on 11 December 2005 at the
Hertfordshire Oil Storage
Terminal, an oil storage facility located near the
M1 motorway by
Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, England. The terminal was the
fifth largest oil-products storage depot in the United Kingdom, with a
capacity of about 60 million imperial gallons (270 Ml) of
fuel. The terminal is owned by TOTAL UK Limited (60%) and Texaco
The first and largest explosion occurred at 06:01 UTC near tank
912, which led to further explosions which eventually
overwhelmed 20 large storage tanks. The emergency services
announced a major emergency at 06:08 and a fire fighting effort began.
The cause of the explosion was a fuel-air explosion in a vapour cloud
of evaporated leaking fuel. The
British Geological Survey
British Geological Survey monitored
the event, which measured 2.4 on the Richter scale. News
reports described the incident as the biggest of its kind in peacetime
Europe and certainly the biggest such explosion in the United Kingdom
since the 1974 Flixborough disaster. The flames had been
extinguished by the afternoon of 13 December 2005. However, one
storage tank re-ignited that evening, which the fire-fighters left to
burn rather than attempting to extinguish it again.
Health Protection Agency
Health Protection Agency and the Major Incident Investigation
Board provided advice to prevent incidents such as these in the
future. The primary need is for safety measures to be in place to
prevent fuel escaping the tanks in which it is stored. Added
safety measures are needed for when fuel does escape, mainly to
prevent it forming a flammable vapour and stop pollutants from
poisoning the environment.
1.1 Explosion and fire
1.2 Tackling the blaze
1.3 Smoke cloud
2 Reactions and response
2.1 Evacuations and closures
2.2 Transport disruption
2.3 Business disruption
2.4 Groundwater pollution
4 Legal action
4.1 Civil liability
4.2 Criminal liability
5 The terminal
8 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
Explosion and fire
The fire seen from a vantage point between the Northgate and 3Com
The first and largest explosion occurred at 06:01 UTC on Sunday, 11
December 2005 near container 912. Further explosions followed
which eventually overwhelmed 20 large storage tanks. From all
accounts, it seems to have been an unconfined vapour cloud explosion
of unusually high strength – also known as a fuel-air
explosion. Because of an inversion layer, the explosions were
heard up to 125 miles (200 km) away; there were reports that they
were audible in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.
British Geological Survey
British Geological Survey monitored the event, which measured 2.4
on the Richter scale. It was reported that people were woken
in south London, and as far west as Wokingham (about 28 miles
(45 km)), where in its southern suburb, Finchampstead, numerous
people felt the shockwave after the initial explosion. Subsequent
explosions occurred at 06:27 and 06:28.
Witnesses many miles from the terminal observed flames hundreds of
feet high; the smoke cloud was visible from space, and from as far
Lincolnshire (about 70 miles (110 km)) away. Damage
from the blasts included broken windows at various buildings including
the Holy Trinity church and
Leverstock Green School, blown-in or
warped front doors, and an entire wall being removed from a warehouse
more than half a mile (800 m) from the site. Buildings in
St Albans also suffered; Townsend School had serious
blast damage, and a window was blown out of
St Albans Abbey (about 5
miles (8 km) away).
Several nearby office blocks were hit so badly that almost every
window, front and back, was blown in as the explosion ripped through
them. The timing of the explosion before work hours possibly
prevented additional casualties. Reports also indicated that cars in
nearby streets caught fire. The roof of at least one house was blown
off. Buildings in the vicinity were evacuated by police, not only
because of the smoke and possibility of more explosions, but because
of the danger of structural damage making the buildings unstable.
There were 43 reported injuries; two people were deemed to be
seriously injured enough to be kept in hospital, one in Watford
General Hospital, with breathing difficulties, and another in Hemel
Hempstead Hospital, although they were not in a life-threatening
condition. Some early media reports spoke of eight
fatalities, but these may have been persons missing. All members of
staff from the terminal were accounted for.
Hertfordshire police and fire services and the member of parliament
for the area, Mike Penning, said that there were seven fuel tanks on
the site which, as of 14:00 on 12 December, had not been affected.
These tanks were at risk of exploding if the fire were to
Tackling the blaze
This satellite photo shows black smoke from the explosion spreading in
two main streams from the explosion site at the apex of the inverted
'v'. By the time the fire had been extinguished the smoke had reached
the English Channel. The orange dot is a marker, not the actual fire.
The emergency services announced a major emergency at 06:08 and a
tremendous fire fighting effort began. At peak times this effort
consisted of 25 fire engines, 20 support vehicles and
180 fire fighters.
Around 150 firefighters were called immediately to the incident,
and began tackling the blaze at 08:20 on the morning of 11 December,
putting in containment measures before applying a large quantity of
foam. The incident occurred close to junction 8 of the M1
motorway, which led to its closure and the setting up of a public
exclusion area. It was estimated that this incident would be the
largest "single-seat" fire in the world ever to be fought by a fire
brigade, and foam supplies from sites all over the UK were drawn
Plans had been in place to start using foam at midnight on 11
December, but were delayed by last-minute concerns over possible
pollution of local rivers and underlying water sources. Six
high volume pumps were used to extract 25,000 litres
(5,499 imp gal) of water per minute – 417 litres
(92 imp gal) per second – from a reservoir 1.5 miles
(2 km) from the fire, with six more high volume pumps deployed at
various locations to serve as boosters. Thirty-two thousand litres
(7,039 imp gal) of fire fighting foam per minute were directed against
the fire for just over four hours, after which the pumping rate was
reduced. Half of the 20 individual fires were reported
extinguished by midday.
By 16:30 on Monday 12 December, it was reported that a further two
tank fires had been extinguished, but that one of the tanks
extinguished earlier had ruptured and re-ignited, and was now
threatening to cause the explosion of an adjacent tank. This led
M1 motorway being closed again; the public exclusion area was
widened, and firefighters were temporarily withdrawn until the risk
posed by the threatened tank could be assessed.
Firefighting operations were resumed at about 20:00, and it was
anticipated that all fires could be extinguished during the night.
Further damage occurred to one of the storage tanks in the early hours
of Tuesday morning, causing firefighters to be withdrawn once again,
but operations resumed at 08:30. By midday on 13 December, all but
three fires had been extinguished, although the largest tank was still
burning. Bronze command – operations on the ground –
was visited by the Bishop of St Albans, the local vicar, and the
industrial chaplain supporting the fire crews, to see how they were
Firefighters were confident that the remaining fires could be
extinguished during the day on Tuesday, 13 December. The smoke
plume had been considerably reduced and was more grey, indicating the
amount of vapourised water now combining with the smoke. It was
reported at 16:45 that all tank fires had been extinguished, although
some smaller fires persisted. 75% of firefighters for
Hertfordshire were involved in fighting the fire, supported by
16 other brigades. The entire gold command operation, involving
many agencies as well as all the emergency services, was run from
Hertfordshire Constabulary's headquarters in Welwyn Garden City, some
distance from the fire.
A further fire broke out during the early morning of 14 December.
Firefighters were of the view that extinguishing it would leave the
risk of petroleum vapour re-igniting or exploding, so it would be
better to allow the fire, which was well contained, to burn itself
Hertfordshire Fire Service's deputy chief Mark Yates stated
that escaping petroleum vapour was the most likely cause of the
original explosion and fire.
The smoke plume seen from Dunsmore, Buckinghamshire, about 20 miles
(32 km) away
The black smoke cloud, which was visible from satellite photographs,
drifted at a high altitude, around 9,000 feet (2,700 m), towards
Reading and Swindon, and could be seen across much of South East
The small particles in the smoke contained hydrocarbons, which can be
an irritant but have a low toxicity and were not expected to cause any
long-term harm. The
Met Office issued warnings that the smoke in
the atmosphere could come down in rainfall during the night of 11
The fire resulted in 244 people requiring medical aid –
mainly on the first day of the fire. From those 117 had symptoms
attributable to the incident, of whom 38 were members of the public.
The majority of those visiting hospitals were from the rescue services
and attended for precautionary check ups. Most of them had no
symptoms, except for 63 emergency workers who suffered respiratory
complaints, of which half were sore throats.
For the first two days of the fire, the high thermal energy made the
plume highly buoyant; this, together with settled weather conditions,
allowed the plume to rise to a great height with little cross-mixing.
When the fire was reduced in intensity it was reported to be possible
that the plume would be less buoyant and that ground-level smoke
concentrations could then rise significantly. By 12 December, it
was reported that the smoke cloud had reached northern France; it was
expected to arrive in northern Spain by the weekend.
To investigate the smoke cloud the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric
Measurements, a research aircraft operated jointly by NERC and the Met
Office, made two flights on 12 and 13 December. In the first flight
the edge of the plume was followed along the south coast of England.
Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone concentrations were found
to be low with soot particles being the major component in the cloud.
The second flight went into the centre of the plume to obtain data to
help forecasting and emergency teams.
Reactions and response
Evacuations and closures
Smoke from the blast, visible from Hemel Hempstead, above the closed
Hundreds of homes in the
Hemel Hempstead area were evacuated, and
about 2,000 people had to find alternative accommodation;
emergency services asked residents of the smoke-affected areas to
close their windows and doors and to stay inside.
Hertfordshire Constabulary advised people who had houses with smashed
windows to seek refuge with friends or family nearby if possible.
Some people whose homes were damaged by the blast were placed in
hotels, while others stayed in a nearby shopping centre. Total,
the operator of the Buncefield depot, set up a helpline for people
whose properties had been damaged by the explosion, and called in
local authorities and the Salvation Army to provide accommodation or
Concerns for public safety resulted in about 227 schools,
libraries, and other public buildings across
Buckinghamshire closing on 12 and 13 December. Police and local
authorities advised residents to consult the
website for up-to-date information.
Seventy-eight schools in
Luton borough were closed on 13 December,
along with a limited number of schools in Bedfordshire, on the
advice of Hertfordshire's
Health Protection Agency
Health Protection Agency that all schools
within a 10-mile (16 km) radius of the incident site should be
closed because of concerns surrounding the effect of the smoke plume
on children's health. Schools reopened as normal on 14 December.
The incident occurred close to junction 8 of the M1 motorway. The
motorway was shut between junctions 12 and 6a – about 18 miles
(29 km) – shortly after the incident. Other roads in the
vicinity, including the short M10 motorway (now part of the A414
road), were also closed.
Some local petrol stations reported long queues as people started
panic buying. A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry
gave assurances that no petrol shortage was likely to result from the
The oil terminal supplied 30% of Heathrow Airport's fuel, and because
of the fire, the airport had to start rationing fuel. Some
long-haul flights to Australia, the Far East, and South Africa had to
make an intermediate stop at Stansted Airport or other European
airports to refuel, while short-haul operators were asked to fuel
their aircraft for the round trip before flying to Heathrow. Some
aircraft were only allowed 40% of the fuel they would normally take on
board. Fuel shortages continued for months after the explosion.
In the Maylands industrial area the worst affected buildings were the
Northgate Information Solutions
Northgate Information Solutions headquarters and the Fujifilm
building. These buildings were so badly damaged they were rendered
completely unusable. Demolition of the
Fujifilm building began soon
afterwards, and by June 2006 it had been completely removed from the
site. Although the Northgate and
Fujifilm buildings were closest to
the blast, the surrounding Catherine House (to the north), Keystone
Distribution building (to the west),
3Com Corporation and RO buildings
(to the south), were also extensively damaged. In all, six
buildings were designated for demolition and 30 more required major
repairs before they could be reoccupied.
As a result of the destruction of the equipment in the Northgate
building several websites hosted there were inaccessible –
including that of the Labour Party.
Addenbrooke's Hospital in
Cambridge was also affected; its IT system dealing with admissions and
discharges had to be replaced for several days by a manual system.
A number of companies were affected by inability to reach their
premises even where the premises themselves were largely unaffected by
the blast. Criticism was expressed by local citizens and the local
MP that originally the depot had been constructed away from other
buildings, but that developmental pressures had led to both houses and
commercial premises being built near the depot.
In May 2006 Three Valleys Water announced that it had detected the
persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic fluorosurfactant
perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – which is used in fire
fighting foam – in a ground water bore hole close to the
Buncefield site. It stated that no water from this well
entered the public water supply and that a nearby well and pumping
station had been closed since the fire as a precaution. The chemical
is a known health risk and the UK government had been about to ban its
However just before the announcement, the Drinking Water Inspectorate
announced that it was increasing the safe level of the chemical in
Hemel Hempstead MP,
Mike Penning accused the
government of changing the rules to suit the situation in which PFOS
levels in drinking water in the area may rise in the future. Most
of the fuel burned out – rather than spilling into the soil, so
the impact on surrounding land and the water table was limited.
Smoke from the fire over Hampstead Heath, London
A government inquiry held jointly by the Health and Safety Executive
(HSE) and the
Environment Agency was started, but calls for a full
public inquiry were declined. The Board included Tony Newton,
Baron Newton of Braintree; Prof Dougal Drysdale, an authority on fire
safety; and Dr Peter Baxter, a medical expert. Environment Agency
and HSE staff were also on the board. Its aim was to identify the
immediate causes of the explosion, rather than consider who was to
blame for any deficiencies, so as not to prejudice further legal
An initial progress report by the Major Incident Investigation Board
on 21 February 2006 did not go into the causes of the explosion, but
summed up the event and the immediate reaction from the emergency
services. A second progress report, published on 11 April
2006, looked at the environmental impact.
A further announcement was made on 9 May 2006 about the sequence of
events which caused the explosion. Starting at 19:00 on the evening of
10 December 2005, Tank 912, towards the north west of the main depot,
was filled with unleaded petrol – from the Coryton Refinery
located in Essex, England. At midnight the terminal closed,
and a check was made of the contents of tanks, which found everything
normal. Normally the gauges monitor the level of the fuel in the tank
as it fills from the particular pipeline. From about 03:00 the level
gauge for Tank 912 began to indicate an unchanging level reading,
despite it being filled at 550 cubic metres (19,423 cu ft)
Calculations show that the tank would have begun to overflow at about
05:20. There is evidence suggesting that a high-level switch,
which should have detected that the tank was full and shut off the
supply, failed to operate. The switch failure should have
triggered an alarm, but it too appears to have failed.
Forty-one minutes later, an estimated 300 tonnes of petrol would
have spilled down the side of the tank through the roof vents onto the
ground inside a bund wall – a semi-enclosed compound
surrounding several tanks.
An overflow such as this results in the rapid formation of a rich fuel
and air vapour. CCTV footage showed such a vapour flowing out the bund
wall from around 05:38. By 05:50 the vapour started flowing off the
site, near the junction of Cherry Tree and Buncefield Lane. Around
05:50 the rate at which fuel was being pumped into the tank increased
dramatically. Initially the fuel was pumped in at 550 cubic metres
(19,423 cu ft) per hour, but it increased to about 890 cubic
metres (31,430 cu ft) per hour. By 06:01, when the first
explosion occurred, the cloud which was initially about 1 metre
(3 ft) deep, thickened to 2 metres (7 ft) and had spread
beyond the boundaries of the site.
The extent of the damage meant it was not possible to determine the
exact source of ignition, but possibilities include an emergency
generator and the depot's fire pump system. The investigators
did not believe that it was caused either by the driver of a fuel
tanker, as had been speculated, or by anyone using a mobile phone. It
was felt unlikely that the explosion had a widespread effect on air
quality at ground level.
This section needs to be updated. Please update this article to
reflect recent events or newly available information. (January 2011)
The Buncefield depot is behind the Northgate building (at the right of
this photo). The building lost the glass from all of its windows.
A total of 2,700 claims were filed by residents, businesses and
insurers. A group of 146 claimants were hoping to bring a class
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd. On 17 March 2006 a High
Court official, Senior Master Turner, adjourned a hearing on whether
to permit the class action until October 2006.[needs update]
Claimants including insurance companies, small businesses and about
280 families whose properties were damaged or destroyed were
claiming up to £1 billion in damages.
Several court cases resulted from the explosion, although the main
trial to determine who was liable for the damage commenced at the High
Court in October 2008.[needs update] The BBC quoted Cheetah
Couriers – which suffered a 20% drop in turnover because of the
explosions, resulting in losses of around £300,000 to £400,000. The
company was located in offices on an industrial estate 400 metres
(1,300 ft) from the depot.
An initial trial concluded on 23 May 2008 when Mr Justice David Steel
issued a summary judgment after hearing that both Total and
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd (HOSL) had agreed that negligence was
the cause. In the main trial, Total UK claimed that the duty
supervisor at the time was responsible for the explosion, but refused
to admit either civil or criminal liability for the incident.
Total UK argued that it should not be liable for damages because it
could not reasonably have foreseen that it would cause the destruction
it did. On 20 March 2009 the High Court found Total liable for
the blast, saying that it was satisfied that Total had control of tank
filling operations at the Buncefield depot. The judgement left the
company facing damage claims of around £700 million.
Total appealed the judgement, but the appeal was dismissed in
a hearing on 4 March 2010.[needs update]
The site is covered by the COMAH regulations. The Control of Major
Accidents and Hazards Regulations are jointly enforced by the
"competent authority" which is formed of the
Environment Agency and
the Health and Safety Executive. They carried out an investigation
during and following the fire.
In April 2010 the five companies accused of causing the explosion
faced a criminal prosecution brought by the Health and Safety
Executive and the Environment Agency. Two defendants, Total UK and
British Pipeline Agency Limited, had already pleaded guilty to
offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The remaining three,
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd, TAV Engineering Ltd, and Motherwell
Control Systems were found guilty in June 2010. TAV Engineering Ltd
and Motherwell Control Systems were found guilty of failing to protect
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd was found guilty of
failing to prevent major accidents and limit their effects and then
pleaded guilty to causing pollution to enter controlled waters
underlying the vicinity around the site, contrary to the Water
Sentencing took place in July 2010. Total UK was fined £3.6m,
plus £2.6m in costs.
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited was fined
£1.45m and £1m in costs. The
British Pipeline Agency was fined
£300,000 plus £480,000 costs. Motherwell Control Systems and TAV
Engineering were fined £1,000 each. Local MP
Mike Penning called the
modest fines "insulting".
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal
Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal (HOSL – Hertfordshire
Oil Storage Ltd), generally known as the Buncefield complex, was the
fifth largest oil-products storage depot in the UK, with a capacity of
about 60,000,000 imperial gallons (270 ML) of fuel, although it
was not always full. This was about 8% of UK oil storage
The HOSL is a major hub on the UK's oil pipeline network (UKOP) with
Stanlow Refinery and is an important fuel
source to the British aviation industry, providing aircraft fuel for
local airports including Gatwick, Heathrow and
About half of the complex is dedicated to the storage of aviation
fuel. The remainder of the complex stores oil, kerosene, petrol and
diesel fuel for petrol stations across much of the South-East of
England. The terminal is owned by TOTAL UK Limited (60%) and
The seat of the fire, and the worst damaged section, was "HOSL West",
used by Total and
Texaco to store a variety of fuels, and the
British Pipeline Agency area.
Hemel Hempstead smoke plume on Monday, 12 December 2005.
The final report of the Major Incident Investigation Board (MIIB) was
written in 2008 and released in February 2011. The investigation
found that Tank 912 at the Buncefield oil storage depot was being
filled with petrol. The tank had a level gauge that employees used to
monitor the level manually, and an independent high-level switch which
would shut off inflow if the level got above a certain setpoint. On
Tank 912, the manual gauge was stuck and the independent shut-off
switch was inoperative, meaning that the tank was being "filled blind"
with petrol (i.e., being filled without a clear indication of the
level). Eventually Tank 912 filled up completely, the petrol
overflowed through vents at the top, and formed a vapour cloud near
ground level, which ignited and exploded. The fires from the explosion
then lasted for five days.
The investigation found that the level gauge had stuck at random times
after a tank service in August 2005, but it did not concern
maintenance contractors or site management. The independent shut-off
switch was not fitted with a critical padlock to allow its check lever
to work. Secondary containment (meant to trap the petrol in a
retaining wall around the tank) failed and allowed petrol to flow out.
Tertiary containment (drains and catchment areas to prevent release of
spilled chemicals to the environment) also failed, and fuel and
firefighting foam entered groundwater supplies. The investigation
found secondary and tertiary containment to be inadequately designed
and poorly maintained.
Wider management failings were found by the investigation to have
contributed to the explosion: management safety checks at the site
were found to be deficient and not properly followed. Site staff did
not have control over the flow rates and timing of two of the three
inlet sources, meaning that they did not have enough information to
properly manage the storage of incoming fuel. Further, overall
throughput had increased, reducing wait times further and shifting the
emphasis to process operations instead of process safety.
This section needs to be updated. Please update this article to
reflect recent events or newly available information. (January 2018)
Soon after the incident the
Health Protection Agency
Health Protection Agency was stripped of
its remit to provide air quality data and it was passed on to the
Environment Agency which forms part of the Major Accident
An anniversary service was held in Holy Trinity Church Leverstock
Green on Sunday, 10 December 2006, at which the Bishop of St Albans
spoke, calling again for a full public inquiry, for assurances that
the local hospital would maintain its accident and emergency
department, and for the community to continue to build on good
relationships formed because of the blast.
To rebuild the damaged parts of the site, the relevant approval from
Dacorum Borough Council would be needed. The BP section of the site is
a good way from the explosion and survived with very little damage,
but it was inoperative as of 2009. BP is exploring plans for the
future use of this part of the site, and has indicated a number of
priorities, including the reopening of the fuel pipelines to Heathrow.
It is considering using its section to store aviation fuel and as a
distribution centre for motor fuel, but at a much-reduced level.
In late 2009, Total UK submitted plans for the reconstruction of the
oil depot. The reconstruction of the site has been taking place
since March 2013.
Jaipur (Indian Oil) Fire in 2009
Milford Haven Refinery
Milford Haven Refinery (fire in 1983)
Grangemouth Refinery (explosion in 1987)
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^ a b c d Official accident report from MIIB
^ "Buncefield Anniversary Service, Sunday 10 December 2006". St Albans
Diocese. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 20
^ a b "Buncefield investigation – Frequently Asked Questions".
BIIM. Archived from the original on 4 April 2008. Retrieved 11
^ "Plans for Buncefield". forecourttrader.co.uk. 2 November 2009.
Retrieved 15 November 2009.
^ "BPA kicks off the Buncefield Rebuild Project". Oil and gas pipeline
consultant. 2013-03-20. Retrieved 2017-10-03.
"Buncefield in Pictures". BBC News. 14 December 2006. Retrieved 31
Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (2006).
Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service's review of the fire
response. The Stationery Office. ISBN 0-11-703716-8.
"Initial Report" (PDF). Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board.
13 July 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 October
Sceptre Fundraising Team (2006). The Buncefield Explosion. Sceptre
Education. ISBN 0-9552759-0-3.
Wikinews has related news: Major explosions at UK oil depot
Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Hertfordshire Oil Storage
Buncefield explosion prosecution Prosecution resulting from Buncefield
The Buncefield Investigation Official government enquiry.
Hertfordshire Constabulary Aerial photographs of the fire in progress.
Buncefield Terminal Incident Pages on the HOSL website.
Hemel Today Coverage of the High Court compensation trial.
Aerial photo (January 2006) of aftermath of the fire
Aerial photo of the Buncefield terminal. Other map and aerial photo
Google Earth Placemark
Media Coverage of Fire
Local newspaper's reader photos
Photographs of Fujifilm's offices by a freelancer working there at the
Coordinates: 51°45′49″N 0°25′26″W / 51.76361°N