Report: BP plant in danger

July 28, 2008 2:20:48 PM PDT
Life-threatening safety violations continue to plague a Texas City BP refinery, leaving it susceptible to another major accident like the one in 2005 that killed 15 people, according to a report released Monday. The report was prepared on behalf of blast victims who object to a federal criminal plea deal with London-based BP PLC related to the accident.

The report criticized BP for not conducting a detailed audit of the refinery, not making widespread improvements at the facility and for the plant's "abysmal safety record" since the blast, which includes three more worker deaths and several fires and chemical releases.

"This danger continues to exist because BP continues to operate its Texas City refinery in violation of federal process safety laws," engineer Mike Sawyer wrote. "The violations of federal law at the refinery create continuing, unreasonable risk and may lead to another major explosion, hazardous release or fatality at anytime."

A BP spokesman did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

BP has said it has vastly improved safety at the refinery, spending about $1 billion on upgrades and repairs.

The company pleaded guilty in February and agreed to pay $50 million fine and serve three years' probation for a BP subsidiary.

The victims thought the fine was too low and that the terms of probation do not provide for an independent watchdog to monitor whether BP would meet its safety obligations at the refinery. They are awaiting a decision from U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal on the final terms of the deal.

Rosenthal sought Sawyer's report, among other information, to make her decision.

"Unless the court acts decisively to take oversight, we will see a continuation of the fires, explosions and deaths and injuries generated by the Texas City refinery," said David Perry, an attorney for blast victims.

Prosecutors and BP have said the plea agreement is the harshest option available in assessing criminal punishment. A congressional committee is investigating the deal.

Sawyer's report accused BP of ignoring a deal with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to conduct detailed audits and inspections of equipment and units at the refinery. OSHA also fined BP more than $21 million.

Sawyer said BP had not done enough to evaluate the equipment, such as piping at the refinery, that ensures that excess pressure and hazardous materials are safely released.

The explosion at the plant about 40 miles southeast of Houston occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons.

The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons then were vented from the drum and ignited at the startup of the isomerization unit -- a device that boosts the octane in gasoline. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn of the overfilled equipment did not work properly.

"Unfortunately, there is every reason to believe that mechanically unsafe conditions likely extend far beyond relief valves to vessels, piping, alarms and warning equipment," Sawyer wrote in his report.

Sawyer also criticized OSHA for not doing enough to ensure that BP improves safety at the refinery.

A spokeswoman for OSHA did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

The deal was part of an October agreement by BP to pay $373 million to settle various criminal and civil charges.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the explosion.

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