Sunday, April 24, 2005

Reflections on BP Amoco: Remembering The Rainbow-colored Water

A journalist who grew up amidst the refineries on the Gulf Coast:
In the wake of the explosion, after the sirens and helicopters and chaos, each resident would know someone killed, or someone who did, as well as survivors who lost legs, or eyesight, or were burned in the fire — human beings whose lives were now irreparably changed.

And in the local cafes and taverns, there would be discussions about how the disaster occurred after a maintenance "turnaround" performed by a nonunion contractor offering the lowest, cost-saving bid. There would be hushed conversations about the lack of safety in the refinery — about corners cut, rules routinely broken, poorly trained contract workers — and the inevitable cover-up from federal regulators in bed with the industry.

And there would be some truth in what was being said, of course, although all concerned would be circumspect in saying so too loud, or too publicly. After all, as a condition of employment, company workers have sign a document bidding them to talk to the media. Their jobs are at stake. Why forfeit one's livelihood for a cause — strict but "costly" enforcement of industrial safety standards— that corporate and government officials loudly embrace but habitually rationalize away?

Because it does come down to that, in the end: jobs. The jobs of the refinery workers, the jobs of the corporate executives, the jobs of the regulators, the job of every American who works for an employer where "affordable" energy prices mean economic success or failure in this "new global marketplace."

So I was not surprised to learn that the BP refinery in Texas City has a history of safety violations. Nor was I surprised to learn that federal regulators in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have assessed large fines in the past, then quietly dropped or reduced them later. That's how the game is played.


And down in Texas City, and all along the Gulf Coast where the giant cauldrons cook oil for the nation, residents are returning to an uneasy truce with their economic sustenance. Many are recollecting the good old days "before Reagan" when trained union workers operated the refineries and chemical plants, when union craftsmen maintained them. Some are consulting lawyers.

As for me — far away on the banks of the Vltava River in this Central European city —I am remembering the gas flares of my youth, the acrid air, the rainbow-colored water. I am curious if it's still there. I am wondering if anything changes.