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The Times: When making a stand is worth so much more than taking a payout

November 02, 2006
By Martin Fletcher

Eva Rowe’s parents died in the Texas City refinery blast. She tells our correspondent why she will be seeing BP in court next week 
 
Eva Rowe, 22 and unemployed, comes from a small town in Louisiana and sports heavy make-up and streaked hair. She seems an unlikely figure to take on the world’s second-biggest oil company.

Her parents, James and Linda Rowe, were among the 15 people killed in an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City in March last year, America’s worst industrial accident in 15 years. 
 
The British behemoth has agreed confidential financial settlements with every other bereaved family — even with Ms Rowe’s older brother — but so far she has refused the millions of dollars that BP has offered her.

Next week Ms Rowe’s civil lawsuit will be the first of hundreds filed against BP to reach court — and that is the last thing the company needs as it struggles to repair its image after a calamitous couple of years: an orphaned girl versus a greedy corporate giant — a foreign one, to boot.

Backed by a silver-tongued, media-savvy lawyer named Brent Coon, Ms Rowe tells anyone who will listen that she wants to have confidential BP documents allegedly revealing the extent of the company’s “wrongdoing” aired in open court, and to force it to raise the safety standards at its refineries around the world.

“If I take the money and go away, all the documents will remain confidential and my parents’ deaths will be in vain,” she told The Times.

“My parents were my best friends,” she told the CBS programme 60 Minutes last Sunday. “They’re all I had. My life ended that day. BP ruined my life.”

“She wants her pound of flesh,” Mr Coon, who has swept-back blonde hair, a broad Southern drawl and his own PR agent in New York, said.

BP “wants to sweep the most damning of the information that’s been driving the litigation back under the rug and go on down the road — Eva doesn’t want that”.

To compound BP’s embarrassment, Mr Coon has won a court order forcing Lord Browne of Madingley, the chief executive of BP, to give evidence, an order that BP is challenging.

“We believe he has personal knowledge about many of the things that led to this explosion,” said Mr Coon, citing BP’s decision in 1999 to seek a 25 per cent reduction in its fixed costs.

Texas City is an hour south of Houston, at the end of a hot and humid road where the United States peters out into the Gulf of Mexico. It has little in the way of a centre or soul, only a vast oil refinery — 485 hectares (1,200 acres) bristling with tanks and towers, pipes and pylons, power lines, flares and chimneys belching smoke.

This is BP’s largest refinery, with a capacity of 460,000 barrels of oil a day, and easily the biggest employer in a town of 40,000 people. It does not welcome journalists — The Times was hustled off its property — but hanging prominently on its perimeter fencing are banners proclaiming, in English and Spanish: “Stop Work If You Think It’s Not Safe.”

That is not what happened soon after 1pm on March 23 last year. Workers restarting an octane-boosting isomerisation unit overfilled a distillation tower with a flammable hydrocarbon liquid.

The liquid overwhelmed a 50-year-old back-up system, sending out a geyser of vapour and liquid. Alarms failed, and a huge explosion was heard five miles away.

The blast killed 15 employees, most of whom were working in trailer offices that were too close to the unit, and injured at least 170 others, many seriously. BP has been hammered ever since. In September last year it was fined a record $21 million for 300 “willful” violations of safety regulations. The US Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency is considering a civil action. A serious oil spill at BP’s Prudhoe Bay facility in Alaska in March and a $2.4 million fine for safety violations at the company’s refinery in Ohio the next month made matters worse.

This week a report by the US Chemical Safety Board cited the latest in a series of embarrassing internal BP documents indicating that the company knew it had serious safety problems well before the Texas City explosion. “What BP experienced was a perfect storm, where ageing infrastructure, overzealous cost-cutting, inadequate design and risk blindness all converged,” Carolyn Merritt, the chairman of the safety board, said. 
 
“It’s not what they need,” Mr Coon observed, with calculated understatement, of Ms Rowe’s court case. BP did not help itself by seeking, initially, to blame low-level workers for the disaster. But, given the manifest weakness of its position, it quickly changed course and since has been engaged in a huge damage limitation exercise.

It has apologised and accepted full responsibility, although it denies that budget cuts were the root cause. It has published the unflattering results of its own investigation into the accident, and it is funding an independent review of its safety culture led by James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, which will report this month. It has started a $1 billion, five-year programme to improve the Texas City refinery.

Above all, the company has moved rapidly to settle hundreds of personal-injury lawsuits before they reach court, starting with the most serious and allocating $1.6 billion for the purpose. Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing 160 plaintiffs, said that he had never seen a big corporation move so fast, adding that his clients were all “very, very happy with the result”. The quid pro quo, of course, is that the plantiffs sign a confidentiality order. Curiously, Texas City itself has not turned on BP. It helps that the company gives generously to civic causes (a local college raised eyebrows recently by naming BP its “corporate hero”). This is almost a company town, so criticising BP might be rash. Matt Doyle, the Mayor of Texas City, was lavish in his praise of BP’s efforts to upgrade the refinery. “I will stake my reputation on that [soon] being the safest plant in America, and maybe in the world,” he told The Times.

For others in the town, the disaster — and BP’s eagerness to put the whole sorry saga behind it — has proved an unexpected windfall. The number of claims far exceeds the number of the injured.

“When things like this happen, people jump on the bandwagon and get what they can,” William Sorrell, 45, a burly firefighter, said. “It’s changing the whole atmosphere around here. People earning $30,000 a year are getting $1.2 million (payouts). We are getting people being extravagant, overextending themselves, buying cars, jewellery, frivolous things.”

Shawn Roper, 33, a boilermaker, said that he knew “people who were just driving by and got money”.

Mr Roper was working close to the explosion. He readily acknowledged that he was not hurt, but two months ago he decided to slap in a lawsuit anyway — “for the sake of my kids”.

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,13129-2432841_2,00.html

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