Thursday, September 01, 2005

BP Texas City: Is Enough Really Enough?

Last month, OSHA's Texas Regional Director John Miles expressed some surprising frustration (for OSHA bureaucrats) with the conditions at BP Amoco's Texas City plant. That's the plant that killed 15 and injured 170 in a massive explosion on March 23 and experienced several other incidents before and after the March explosion, including a September 2004 pipeline rupture that killed two workers and severely injured a third.
“At some point BP has to say, "enough is enough,’" said Miles. "I think that facility for BP (in Texas City) is at that point."
Miles' inspired outburst left Galveston Daily News columnist Michael Smith with a few questions:
For starters, where was OSHA before the refinery got to “enough is enough?”

Is the agency’s sole mandate to show up after the smoke clears to count bodies and give sermons about safety or is there a preventative mission as well?

The fact is that if what BP did from 2004 to now was wrong or inadequate, and clearly it was, then the same can be said for OSHA.

Miles compared BP’s refinery to a plant in Pasadena that saw three fatal accidents in 11 years, including an October 1989 explosion that killed 23 people, a June 1999 blast that killed two and a March 2000 accident that killed one.

Where was OSHA during all that?

More important is this: What can OSHA do to impress a company of BP’s size?
I suggested last month that a $20 billion fine might do the trick, but it's highly unlikely that OSHA will come within 20 billion miles of that figure.

Smith doubts it too, but challenges OSHA to step outside its lapdog image:
OSHA has the reputation, in some quarters anyway, of being a toothless watchdog. In fairness to Miles and those who work for him, that has more to do with the agendas of politicians who hold its purse strings than with their dedication or desire.

Miles implied it would take “true commitment” and not statements to make things right at BP. That’s clearly true and it is clearly true for OSHA as well as the company. We wonder if OSHA can muster that commitment, even now at this late hour.

It might also take more than a nickel-and-dime fine. We wonder if OSHA can muster that either.
Smith's column also generated two interesting and moving letters to the editor, the first from a woman who has a close connection to the plant, Katherine Rodruiguez:
On Sept. 2, 2004, the BP Texas City refinery had an “incident.” It didn’t make the news, and there was not continuing press coverage. However, three families were devastated by the news that three workers were injured in a pipeline rupture. One of them was my father, who subsequently passed away after a two-month battle in the hospital.

We have all been silent through the subsequent events at the refinery but have been grieving nonetheless.

I have made a decision to fight for my father and all other workers who deserve to have a safe work environment. I can be silent no more.

Your article is just the kind of exposure that the public needs hear.

Hopefully, in the wake of recent events, something can actually be changed for the better.
More skeptical that OSHA can -- or will be allowed to change is 20-year CalOSHA employee Jack Oudiz:
In California, we have 200 enforcement inspectors to cover more than 5 million workplaces and 16 million workers.

There are more fish and game wardens than OSHA inspectors here.

The maximum criminal penalty for EPA is 15 years — seven people were jailed for one year for harassing a wild burro. By contrast, the maximum criminal penalty from OSHA is six months — one person has been jailed since 1970 for six months.

The OSHA Act was a radical idea that much of corporate America still cannot accept, and the political will for a truly effective agency has never existed.

It has waxed and waned over the years with Democrats and Republicans respectively, but the value of putting worker lives over profits has never been highly prized.
OSHA will issue its violations by the end of this month. I asked readers to guess how high the fine would be. The guesses ranged from a low of $50,000 to a high of $1.2 million. (My guess was $832,350) Feel free to use the comment link below to continue the bidding.

But as "fun" as the guessing game is, this society still needs to answer Michael Smith's question: "What can OSHA do to impress a company of BP’s size?"

Jack Oudiz argues -- with some pretty solid history behind him -- that corporate America will never let us put workers' lives over profits. Katherine Rodriguez has decided to fight for her father "and all other workers who deserve to have a safe work environment" to prove him wrong.

We've got an election coming up soon. Might be a good time to raise some of these issues with those who are seeking to represent us.

More on this later.

More BP Texas City Explosion Stories