Sunday, January 29, 2006

U.S. Prepares Civil and Criminal Suits Against BP For 2005 Explosion That Killed 15

The Wall St. Journal reported last week that the federal government is preparing a civil suit against BP Amoco for the March 23 Texas City explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170.
The case could result in considerable fines for BP, which would include penalties for violating Texas state laws that prohibit unauthorized emissions of harmful chemicals such as benzene, nitrogen oxides and pentene. Numerous chemicals were released during the explosion, though state officials said they found that none of the emissions had reached beyond the refinery site.

Earlier in the investigation into the explosion, staff at the EPA and the Justice Department were discussing a possible fine of $200 million for the explosion, according to a government official familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. That would be one of the largest fines ever for violations of environmental laws.


The charges being considered by the federal government include failure by the company to have an adequate risk-management plan at Texas City, the officials said. The Clean Air Act requires that large facilities prepare these plans to prevent industrial accidents and cope with the aftermath of such events. The Texas City facility is the third largest oil refinery in the U.S.

Much of the evidence for the charges the government is considering, is present in a report on the explosion prepared this fall by BP itself, the government official said. "They pretty well self-disclose there was a problem," said the official. "The issue was they didn't fix it."

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reports that the EPA and FBI are also looking into a separate criminal case.

OSHA fined the company $21.3 million last year. OSHA, the US Chemical Safety Board and BP itself determined that combustible liquids overflowed into a "blowdown drum" that then overflowed onto the ground, spreading vapors which exploded. The company had been warned by OSHA in the early 1990's that the process was unsafe and that overflows should be vented to a flair. BP had also recognized the problem, but had not gotten around to fixing it. All of the fatalities were in or near office trailers that had been placed to close to the hazardous process.

The Houston Chronicle reported last month that
Two and a half years before the fatal March 23 explosion at the BP Texas City plant, managers rejected an outside contractor's proposal to attach a flare to the vent stack that overflowed that day, according to e-mail obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

BP didn't pursue the option — which likely would have prevented the blast that claimed 15 lives — because the company hadn't done a federally required safety study on the isomerization unit, the two e-mail messages indicate.
In addition to high fines, the Clean Air Act (CAA) states that a person who “negligently places another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury” can be sentenced to one year in jail, and a person who who at the time knowingly places another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury can serve up to 15 years in jail.

More BP Texas City Explosion Stories here.