The punch list meeting was going on without a hitch. Less than 200 feet away, things were going terribly wrong within the isomerization unit.With all of the attention paid to the 14 miners killed in the Sago mine earlier this year, it's easy for most Americans to forget that one year ago today fifteen workers lost their lives and 170 were injured in a massive explosion that ripped through the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas. It was one of the biggest workplace disasters in over a decade.
David Leining said the crew heard a boom, followed by another explosion that began to shake the trailer.
“Debris starting flying — the trailer began to roll,” said Leining. “It’s hard to explain what happened. It was so quick. “There was just a tremendous, tremendous amount of pressure, a lot of noise and a lot of smoke, all instantaneous.”
Twelve of the 15 people killed were in the trailer. Leining was one of seven people in the trailer who survived.
About 10 minutes later, he was able to get a radio working.
“We radioed out that we were stuck in the trailer, and the answer came back: ‘You can’t be; the trailer is gone,’” said Leining. “We just radioed back for someone to come get us.”
But it's not surprising that people have forgotten. Unlike the recent mining disasters, the BP explosion produced no Congressional hearings, no emergency legislation, no calls for OSHA to enforce the law more effectively or to raise its fines. The story fell from the national headlines after barely more than 24 hours.
What was the difference between BP and the mine disasters? Possibly that miners die in slow motion over days while the agony of their family and community is televised nationwide. The refinery workers, on the other hand, were literally gone in a flash. Or maybe it's the "romance" and folklore of mining compared to the grease and grit of working in a refinery. But similar issues were raised in both disasters.
BP management initially tried to blame the operators for the explosion, but in the face of evidence compiled by the US Chemical Safety Board and OSHA, they were forced to acknowledge that they were operating dangerous, obsolete equipment with a history of problems and a malfunctioning level indicator, level alarm, and a control valve. Instead of venting flammable liquids to a flair, they were vented into the atomosphere where they overflowed and exploded, despite the fact that OSHA had warned them years before that the equipment was dangerous and should be replaced. But the OSHA citation was withdrawn and BP refused on numerous occasions to make the needed changes. All of those killed in the refinery were contractors in or near trailers that had been placed too close to the unit that exploded.
A preliminary report by the CSB found serious lapses in the company's safety systems and recommended that BP commission an independent panel that would review a range of safety management and culture issues stemming from the March 23, 2005 explosion and several other incidents before and after that event. The panel is being headed up by former Secretary of State James Baker.
While the families of those killed mourn, several are also organizing for improvements in the industry. The Galveston Daily News describes the activities of Linda Hunnings and Eva Rowe. Hunnings’ husband, Jim, and Rowe’s parents, James and Linda, were among the 15 people killed in the explosion.
Both, independent of one another, decided to begin lobbying legislators and the public. They also want to see the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration given more power to regulate and fine employers.OSHA issued a $21.3 million fine against the company last September and referred the case to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges. Even though the fine was the largest in OSHA's history, it came to only a few hours of BP's annual profit.
“There’s no reason at all these should be blowing up,” Rowe said of the nation’s refineries. “You don’t go into an office building to work expecting it to fall down while you are sitting there. Why should you expect that there would be explosions in a plant?”
Hunnings, herself a longtime petrochemical worker, said her personal experience had convinced her that all the talk of an emphasis on safety is just that — talk. Even BP’s recent efforts to improve its Texas City facility, the company’s quick action to settle a majority of the legal claims, a $21 million fine by OSHA and all other efforts in the wake of the March 23 blasts have done little to change her mind.
“I think it’s all a show for Texas City and a show for the families,” she said. “They need to give a wakeup call to the petrochemical industry.”
Dangerous practices need to be eliminated, she said.
“If you are doing those things, then you need to be shut down until it’s fixed,” she said. “Period.”
The Chemical Safety Board is expected to issue its final investigation report later this year, along with recommendations. The CSB is not empowered to issue fines, however.
Hunnings is lobbying for the State of Texas to take action, citing the example of West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin's actions after the recent mining disaster when he pushed through emergency legislation and shut down the mines for a day after two additional miners were killed. Texas Governor Rick Perry argues that only federal OSHA has the authority to take such action, but Hunnings is advocating a Texas state workplace safety agency that can crack down on companies that refuse to take safety seriously.
“Maybe they need to see the pain that is caused when the state of Texas turns its back on us,” said Hunnings. “I am getting so damn tired of hearing about recommendations. Something needs to be changed. Laws need to be passed.”And the Galveston Daily News brings it all home with an editorial about need to empower OSHA with the authority to force companies to make changes or shut them down:
Hunnings and Rowe hope others will join their efforts.
“I need to know my parents died for a purpose and not in vain,” said Rowe. “I want to make a difference. I want to make sure legislators change the laws so people can work safely.
“Refineries should not explode around you.”
The reality is that, through the years, Congress and presidential administrations pulled the watchdog’s teeth. Regulators could complain about BP’s safety practices, but they couldn’t force the company to make changes.More BP stories here.
Those changes would cost money — and there’s a reluctance to force corporations to spend money on safety equipment.
That reluctance with corporate giants is odd, given that regulators routinely force ordinary people to spend money on safety.
Imagine taking your car to get its inspection sticker. Suppose the inspection reveals the brakes are bad.
Do you get off the hook by claiming that new brakes cost too much?
And, if you failed to get new brakes and then drove your car through a crowd, would you expect to get off with a light fine?
As it stands today, some federal officials have a responsibility to protect the safety of workers. But they don’t have the authority to compel reluctant companies to take action. They ought to have that authority.