The Guardian November 15, 2000


The Longford disaster:
Esso to face mass court action

by Peter Mac

Oil giant Esso Australia last week failed to prevent the Federal Court from 
dealing with a massive "class action" against the company over the 1998 
explosion and two-day fire at its major gas extraction and processing plant 
in Longford, Victoria.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of two Esso employees, and deprived 
Victoria of gas supplies for nearly two weeks, causing an estimated loss of 
hundreds of millions of dollars for firms that relied on gas to run their 
businesses, and widespread discomfort and costs to hundreds of thousands of 
households.

In a victory for the relatives of the victims and those adversely affected 
by the crisis, the Federal Court ruled that the class action could proceed, 
although a lesser charge of misleading the public was thrown out.

Unions representing workers at the Longford plant have consistently argued 
that the issue of plant safety is central to determining the outcome of any 
such legal action.

At the time of the explosion the plant was considered by many to be poorly 
maintained and severely undermanned, a situation which followed the Kennett 
Government's watering down of the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety 
Act.

Not long before the accident the company relocated a number of its most 
skilled supervisors to other plants and, it seems, took little or no action 
to provide extra training or support for the remaining staff, who were 
obliged to accept the extra responsibility.

After the accident, Brian Boyd, Campaigns and Industrial Officer of the 
Victorian Trades Hall Council noted that whereas the Longford plant had 
previously been subjected to regular and rigorous safety inspections, after 
1995 the regime of inspections had been seriously weakened by the 
institution of "self-regulation" by the company.

This resulted in the reduction of safety inspections by 80 per cent, and 
the conversion of WorkCover inspectors into "consultants who assist 
industry, rather than inspectors who have got some teeth to actually make 
employers keep workplaces safe."

The subsequent inquiry into the disaster found that, despite a string of 
disturbing incidents prior to the accident, the company had not provided 
adequate planning, supervision or training for the remaining staff to deal 
with emergency situations.

The inquiry's report stated that: "the causes of the accident ... amounted 
to a failure to provide and maintain as far as practical a working 
environment that was safe and without risk to health   ...".

With regard to isolating the various components of the plant to prevent the 
spread of fire in the event of an accident, it noted that "There was no 
real plan or philosophy to guide such an operation".

The report concluded, in part, that "While criticism can be made of certain 
aspects of the plant, its design and operation, the ultimate cause of the 
accident on September 25 was the failure of Esso to equip its employees 
with appropriate knowledge to deal with the event that occurred.

"Not only did Esso fail to impart that knowledge to its employees, but it 
failed to make the necessary information available in the form of operating 
procedures."

In response to the initial "class action" charges, Esso had maintained that 
the case against them was "unreal and unarguable".

The potential costs against the company amount to a billion dollars. 
Predictably, the company is considering appealing against the court's 
decision to hear the case, and may argue that it does not have the 
jurisdiction to do so.

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