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Financial Times: Civil litigation focus on BP manager laptop

By Sheila McNulty
Published: March 4 2007 22:03 | Last updated: March 4 2007 22:03

Susan Moore, BP’s regulatory affairs manager, finds herself at the centre of BP civil litigation arising from the Texas City refinery blast.

On January 26 2007, she admitted in a sworn deposition to deleting documents after plaintiffs’ lawyers subpoenaed her laptop on an anonymous tip that she had information useful in the lawsuits from those injured and killed in the refinery explosion. The lawyers are seeking all deleted documents from BP.

Internal documents from when the regulatory issue was first raised, seen by the Financial Times, include a June 27 2002 e-mail by Matthew Brewer, a process engineer, to staff saying that the new rules would probably require the installation of a flare, meter and other equipment: “This would be a huge expense, as well as a large design effort. Probably not achievable by December 2003.”

In a June 9 2002 e-mail, David Harlan, a BP engineer, told staff the proposed rule required that “after December 2003, any atmospheric relief valve in VOC [volatile organic compound] service must be routed to the flare upon any second venting occurrence”.

BP had had a number of instances whereby VOCs had “vented’’, or been released, from the blowdown drum in the Isom unit – the part of the refinery that exploded – according to John Mogford, BP’s group vice-president for exploration and production, who led the internal investigation into the blast.

The Chemical Safety Board documented six previous releases from the “antiquated” blowdown drum since 1994, any of which could have led to a disaster. After what was to have been the December 2003 deadline, BP had three such releases, on March 26 2004, November 29 2004 and February 25 2005.

Ronnie Chappell, BP spokesman, said: “Even if the environmental regulations had required the Isom unit to have a flare, the time between what was the effective date of the regulations (December 23 2004) and the tragedy – three months – would have made it almost, if not, impossible to engineer, permit, obtain materials for and install a flare at the Isom unit prior to the incident.’’

Rerouting would have been required within one year of the second venting.

In the end, BP did not undertake that rerouting process until after the unit exploded.

Mr Mogford said in his investigation report that BP had not seized opportunities to upgrade to a flare in spite of admitting: “Blowdown stacks have been recognised as potentially hazardous for this service, with the industry moving more towards closed relief systems to flare.’’

Mr Chappell said at the time that the new regulations were being discussed, the “blowdown system remained in use because process hazard reviews did not recognise the possibility that multiple, prolonged procedural failures could result in such a massive flow of fluids and vapours to the blowdown system. Operated properly, we believed this unit was safe.’’

So, on July 12 2004, a BP PowerPoint sent to John Manzoni, BP’s chief executive of refining and marketing, ahead of his visit to the site, boasted of how – by fighting off tighter regulations and successfully influencing the “drivers” of regulation to reduce capital expenditures by more than $100m (£51.5m) on the highly reactive volatile organic compound emissions – BP had “eliminated expensive, burdensome monitoring requirements, which only reduced emissions minimally”.

Other oil and gas companies had joined BP’s lobbying effort against the tighter regulations but only BP suffered the consequences.

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