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International Herald Tribune: BP executive blames workers for Texas refinery blast

EXTRACT: Besides killing 15 people, the explosion injured hundreds. It led to more than 3,000 lawsuits, a record fine of $21 million by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a finding by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that the company endangered workers by cutting costs.

THE ARTICLE 

By Laurel Brubaker Calkins and Margaret Cronin Fisk
Bloomberg News
Published: September 17, 2007

GALVESTON, Texas: An executive from BP told jurors Friday that careless workers caused the explosion at the company’s refinery in Texas that killed 15 people, and said that no amount of increased spending or maintenance would have prevented the accident.

The explosion, on March 23, 2005, occurred when an octane-boosting unit overflowed as operations were being restarted. Gasoline vapors spilled into an antiquated vent system and ignited in a blast that broke windows as far as five miles, or eight kilometers, away.

“Our people did not follow their startup procedures,” Pat Gower, the company’s vice president of North America refining, testified Friday in Galveston, Texas, at the first trial of lawsuits arising from the explosion. “If they’d followed the startup procedures, we wouldn’t have had this accident.”

BP’s budget cuts and poor maintenance were not responsible for the deaths and injuries in the Texas City refinery explosion, Gower said, countering claims from workers at the site. “Budget cuts didn’t have anything to do with March 2005,” he said.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Nara and David Wilson, Scott Kilbert and Rolando Bocardo. They suffered back injuries, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress syndrome, their lawyers said.

Besides killing 15 people, the explosion injured hundreds. It led to more than 3,000 lawsuits, a record fine of $21 million by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a finding by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that the company endangered workers by cutting costs.

The accident also contributed to the early retirement of John Browne as BP’s chief executive.

BP, the second-biggest European oil company after Royal Dutch Shell, admitted responsibility for the accident and said it never intentionally jeopardized workers at its largest refinery. The company has settled more than 1,350 claims from a $1.6 billion fund created for that purpose, including claims arising from all the deaths.

Don Parus, the manager at the Texas City plant, testified in the trial that BP was wrong to blame the blast on workers and managers at the site. The refinery’s problems were “years in the making,” he said.

Brent Coon, a lawyer for the workers who questioned Gower, noted that Browne took responsibility after the blast for “every death” that occurred on BP property.

But Gower said the company should not bear the blame for the accident. “With 6,000 people, we can’t watch everyone,” he said.

Coon said there was an extensive list of equipment and procedures that failed simultaneously, causing the explosion. These included rusted components in the emergency vent stack, overdue inspections, broken alarm sirens, obscured sight gauges, broken pumps and an understaffed control room.

Gower agreed the unit should not have been started in such poor condition. He questioned whether management knew the unit’s true status when ordering the restart.

“I’m still not sure who made the decision to start the unit up,” he testified.

BP’s reconstruction of the accident showed that workers mistakenly left a relief valve closed and did not notice the tower’s filling to 10 times the acceptable level, allowing gasoline to geyser out of the top of the relief vent. The overflowing gasoline created a vapor cloud that was ignited by sparks from a vehicle idling nearby.

The company increased capital spending at its Texas City plant in each of the three years before the explosion in 2005, Gower said.

“We were spending more money than ever,” Gower testified when asked about budgets to address serious infrastructure problems at the plant identified in a 2002 study. “We continued to increase spending to put these units back in shape.”

Margaret Cronin Fisk reported from Southfield, Michigan.

No date for Prudhoe restart

BP said it did not know when it would be able to resume full production at its Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska, which has been plagued by maintenance problems.

Output at the field, the largest in the United States, has plunged. It produced 196,557 barrels on Sept. 12, compared with an average of 300,932 barrels on Sept. 1, according to the Web site of the Alaska Tax Division.

“The maintenance is scheduled within a window and the amount of actual time taken is subject to a lot of variables,” said Steve Rinehart, a spokesman for BP in Anchorage.

BP has had at least three fires and a flaring event in the past month at different locations in Alaska, raising concern among state officials.

BP partly shut the Prudhoe Bay field from August through October last year after faulty maintenance led to pipeline corrosion and leaks.

http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/09/16/bloomberg/bxbp.php

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