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Toulouse court clears Total of reponsibility in AZF factory explosion

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-11-19

A French court cleared oil giant Total and its former CEO Thierry Desmarest (photo centre) of responsibility in the 2001 explosion of the AZF chemical factory near Toulouse. The plant's former manager was also discharged due to lack of proof.

A French court ruled that oil giant Total could not be held responsible for the 2001 explosion that destroyed its AZF chemical fertiliser subsidiary, near the southern French city of Toulouse.

Former Total CEO Thierry Desmarest is also cleared of responsibility, as are the plant’s former manager Serge Biechelin and subsidary owner Grande Paroisse.

Both Grande Paroisse and Biechelin had been charged with involuntary homicide, causing injury and destruction of property.

The court declared that the former manager’s direct responsibility in the blast could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt, and dismissed the summons against Total and Desmarest issued by victims because neither had been put under formal investigation by magistrates.

Investigators found an abnormally large quantity of volatile ammonium nitrate in the factory that may have caused the blast, and victims accused Grande Paroisse and Total of negligence in stocking the highly flammable substance. However, the court ruled that it was impossible to prove with certainty that this was actually the reason behind the explosion.

The company has already paid some two billion euros (2.6 billion dollars) in compensation to the victims but it said this did not constitute an acknowledgement of any criminal responsibility.

“The judges said that there was plenty of evidence of negligence at many levels, but none pinpointing one person in particular, so no-one can be punished. This has obviously left the victims confused and angry, many in tears. I don’t think this is a verdict which pleases anyone, really”, reported FRANCE 24 correspondent Christopher Bockman from the Toulouse courthouse.

The blast killed 31 people, injured at least 3,000 and damaged around 30,000 homes and hundreds of businesses in a radius of up to six kilometres (3.7 miles) around the plant. It was initially believed to have been caused by a terrorist attack: the September 11 attacks in New York had occurred just two weeks before, and were fresh in people’s minds.

Judges ruled today that there was no proof of a deliberate terrorist plot and an accident was the most likely cause of the explosion. However, an eight-year-long multi-million euro investigation failed to shed light on exactly what caused the tragedy, leaving victims and their families helpless and still in the dark.
 

Date created : 2009-11-19

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