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Bloomberg: BP Engineer Says Firm Lied for Permit Before Blast (Update2)

By Laurel Brubaker Calkins and Margaret Cronin Fisk

 Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) — An engineer at BP Plc’s Texas City, Texas, refinery testified that the company lied on an air pollution permit application covering a unit of the plant that exploded in 2005, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds.

Reuben Herrera, who left the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to work for BP, told jurors in Galveston state court today that, as a BP employee, he twice misstated the doomed unit’s mechanisms for releasing vapors through a “flare” to burn off emissions and its monitoring of relief valves.

“We did not have a flare,” Herrera testified as part of a trial over injury claims by eight workers at the plant. “After the accident was when we realized we didn’t have a monitoring program on those relief valves,” he said, adding that “BP did not provide correct information.”

The state judge overseeing the lawsuits ruled last year that attorneys for blast victims can use claims that BP misled state regulators to remove Texas limits on punitive damages. BP settled three previous Texas trials over blast claims either during jury selection or before jurors could hear complete evidence. The eight plaintiffs in this trial are seeking more than $1 billion in compensatory and punitive damages.

BP spokesman Neil Chapman, who is attending the trial, declined to comment on Herrera’s testimony.

The explosion occurred March 23, 2005, when an octane- boosting unit overflowed as it was being restarted following repairs. Gasoline spilled into an antiquated vent system called a blowdown drum, creating a vapor cloud that exploded with such force that it destroyed windows five miles away.

4,000 Lawsuits

The explosion at BP’s largest refinery triggered more than 4,000 lawsuits. BP, Europe’s second-largest oil company after Royal Dutch Shell Plc, has avoided jury verdicts by settling all but about 1,200 of the suits. The company admitted responsibility for the explosion and set aside $1.6 billion to settle claims.

Herrera testified he discovered after coming to work for BP that the company’s flex permit application incorrectly indicated the octane-boosting unit was vented to a flare, not the blowdown drum, which later exploded. Herrera said he corrected the application to indicate the system was vented to relief valves that were regularly monitored and inspected.

After the blast, he said he discovered the unit’s relief valves were inaccessible and couldn’t have been monitored under normal operations.

Emissions Information

Cannon asked Herrera if the emissions information BP had twice provided state regulators on the operating unit was “true or was it outright false?” Herrera replied, “I later came to find out that it was not correct.”

Herrera also testified about an engineering drawing depicting emissions controls on the octane-boosting unit that is missing from BP’s permit application. He said BP couldn’t find any copies of the drawing, although lawyers for victims suing the company found an early draft on a consultant’s computer, which incorrectly shows the unit vented to a flare.

After the explosion, federal investigators determined the blast wouldn’t have happened had the unit been vented to a flare, which could’ve burned off the overflow.

Texas State Judge Susan Criss, who is overseeing all blast claims, ruled last year that jurors in this trial should consider that BP may have destroyed the document to keep it from becoming evidence in the case. Her ruling effectively removes the state cap on punitive damages and exposes BP to unlimited damages, should jurors decide against BP.

Wrong Drawing

Herrera testified that the engineering drawing BP submitted in its pollution application for that operating unit is actually a drawing of a different part of the refinery. He had no explanation for BP giving the wrong drawing to the state.

Under cross-examination by BP attorney Stephen Fernelius, Herrera defended working on the same permit as a BP employee that he oversaw as a state regulator, which critics have labeled a violation of Texas’s “revolving door” ethics law.

BP hand-delivered its pollution permit application to Herrera’s office in February 2003, and Herrera began working at the BP Texas City refinery the next month for a 30 percent pay increase. Herrera said he worked on two earlier drafts of BP’s permit application and never opened the third draft that was delivered days before he left the environmental quality commission.

“I was not bribed to come over and work for BP,” Herrera testified. When Fernelius asked if anyone “other than these lawyers who are seeking money from BP” had suggested he’d done anything wrong, Herrera replied, “No.”

Workers’ Injuries

The workers suing BP in this trial claim injuries to their backs, shoulders and limbs, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. All but one of the victims has had surgery and several are scheduled for additional surgeries.

The plaintiffs are: James Platt, 57; Donald Jones, 52; Bobby Moore, 58; Douglas Brantley, 32; Steve Bahr, 49; Marvin Vasquez, 39; Richard Crofoot, 60; and John Estephan, 43.

Platt, a crane operator, was about 30 yards from the unit that exploded and was blown off his crane. Moore, a field safety director, was also about 30 yards from the blast and was knocked off his feet. The others were working several hundred feet or more from the blast site.

The cases are combined with Arenazas v. BP Products North America, 05CV0337, 212th District Court, Galveston County, Texas (Galveston).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Galveston, Texas, at [email protected] ; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at [email protected] .

Last Updated: December 11, 2007 20:42 EST

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