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Financial Times: BP safety under fresh US attack

By Sheila McNulty in Houston
Published: September 16 2006 00:01 | Last updated: September 16 2006 00:01

BP mistakenly told state regulators in a 2003 application for an emissions permit that it had installed the updated equipment which investigators said would have prevented last year’s fatal explosion at its Texas City refinery, the Financial Times has learned.

In the application, a copy of which has been seen by the FT, BP said: “Relief valves are routed to a flare; therefore, 100 per cent control credit is applied.” A flare is a closed tank in which liquid emissions are received and the vapour burned off. But BP only applied to replace the outdated blowdown stack on the refinery’s ISOM unit with a flare after the refinery exploded, killing 15 and injuring an estimated 500.

A blowdown stack is a tank with an open stack, used to dispose of emergency releases. An ISOM unit is used to boost the octane rating of gasoline.

“The fatal explosion would not have occurred if the ISOM unit had a properly sized and designed flare system,” said Daniel Horowitz of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents.

In BP’s own assessment of the blast at its biggest refinery, it said the use of a flare system, instead of a blowdown stack – which the industry has been phasing out for years – would have reduced the accident’s severity. BP said on Friday: “We follow the rules.”

BP is under grand jury investigation for possible criminal charges in Texas. The FT has learnt that both the US Attorney’s Office and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, conducting separate investigations of BP, have learned of the existence of the emissions permit document during their probes.

BP also is under grand jury investigation in Alaska for severe corrosion that forced it to shut half of Prudhoe Bay. Hearings are also being held in Congress over how BP let its field deteriorate to such an extent.

A year-long oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, uncovered by the FT last month, and a spill in California announced this week, have bolstered claims that BP’s US safety culture needs improving.

The BP document is part of BP’s application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a revised Flexible Permit relating to emissions from the Texan plant. It is likely to surface in state court in the first civil cases arising from the blast to go to trial. BP received the permit in July 2005, four months after the explosion.

That trial is to begin on Monday, with the start of jury selection. There are roughly 550 outstanding death, injury and damage cases against BP, which has settled about 650 cases.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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