An e-mail obtained by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the damaged unit was kep running
because another ultraformer unit, the UU3, was shut down for maintenance. Consequently, shutting down the UU4 would force the shutdown of several other units dependent on its sole operation, the e-mail said.In March 2004, a pipe broke in the same unit causing explosions and fire, resulting in a $63,000 OSHA fine.
"The piping is a serious safety risk," wrote superintendent Ross Vail to other unit superintendents and BP top management. "However UU4 will remain operating until UU3 has returned to safe operation. ... The decision to operate UU4 was not easy, but the risk to the site was very apparent."
BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said inspectors found one problem line with weld erosion — a condition that weakens the pipeline and can cause it to fail — on May 26 and were able to isolate it, preventing any dangerous liquids from flowing through it. But another line with erosion detected the next day could not be isolated, he said.
The United Steelworkers union, which represents the workers at Texas City, were not amused:
"This tells a lot about the company's attitude toward safety," said Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the Pittsburgh-based union. "They clearly didn't learn much since March 23."A BP spokesperson said that the decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the company's reluctance to slow production and face revenue loss at a time when oil company profits are skyrocketing due to high gasoline prices. In fact, according to BP, shutting down the unit and restarting it again was more dangerous than leaving it running, even in a seriously damaged condition.
But safety experts in the union and industry disputed BP's reasoning.
Glenn Erwin, a former Texas City refinery worker who monitors refinery safety nationwide for the USW, said he was skeptical of that reason. But even if true, that rationale was not good enough to continue operating the unit, even for a day, he said.Last month, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued an urgent recommendation to BP to commission an independent panel that would review a range of safety management and culture issues stemming from the March 23 Texas City explosion that killed 15 and injured 170, as well as a number of other incidents at BP facilities in the United States.
"As a general rule, we can safely shut down our units and bring our units up," Erwin said. "By taking the position that we have a dangerous unit but shutting it down would be even more dangerous means there are pretty significant safety issues in the whole operation."
Scott Berger, director of the Center for Chemical Process Safety, which writes guidelines for the safe operations of refineries and other chemical plants, agreed that having to balance the two risks should be avoided.
"It would certainly ruin my day if I was in charge of the unit and basically found the piping got thin, and there was a bigger risk if I shut it down," said Berger."You are making the choice of the lesser of two evils. ... You should never let yourself get into that position in the first place."