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Total subsidiary on trial again for 2001 chemical blast

A subsidiary of the Total oil giant went on trial again Thursday for possible negligence in a 2001 blast at the AZF chemical plant that left 31 people dead. A Toulouse court ruled in 2009 that there was not enough evidence to prove the charges.


AFP - A French court Thursday began hearing a new trial to decide if a subsidiary of oil giant Total and its former boss were negligent in a 2001 chemical plant blast that killed 31 people.

Prosecutors appealed after a court in the southwestern town of Toulouse ruled in 2009 there was not enough evidence to prove manslaughter charges against Total subsidiary Grande Paroisse and former plant chief Serge Biechlin.

The blast, which erupted in September 2001 in a storage warehouse packed with 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the AZF chemical fertiliser plant near Toulouse, also injured 2,500 people and devastated 30,000 homes.

Hundreds of people packed a special courtroom set up for the new trial.

"I fully comprehend the importance and the solemnity of this exceptional trial, your emotion and your expectations. The court feels its immense responsibility," presiding judge Bernard Brunet said as the trial opened.

Prosecutors argued in the first trial that negligence of security measures had been behind the blast but the defence said the explosion had been a simple industrial accident.

The new case involves 2,700 plaintiffs, 60 lawyers and more than 200 witnesses, and is expected to last four months.

Since the blast, Grande Paroisse has paid out more than two billion euros ($2.7 billion) in compensation to more than 16,000 victims, according to Total's figures.

The blast came just days after the September 11 attacks in New York and initially sparked fears that it was a terrorist attack. That theory was later dismissed by investigators.


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