The Firm . BP blast survivors line up to speak


BP blast survivors line up to speak

Several victims of the deadly 2005 blast at BP's Texas City refinery aim to share their views with a federal judge who is considering approval of the company's proposed plea deal to resolve a criminal probe into the disaster, their lawyers said.

At a hearing set for Monday, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal could approve or reject an agreement between BP and the Justice Department. Under the deal, the company's North American products division would plead guilty to a felony environmental crime, pay a $50 million fine and serve three years' probation.

For weeks, plaintiffs' attorneys who represent blast victims have criticized the proposed punishment as too lenient for a preventable explosion that killed 15 people and injured many more. Some of those affected by the blast want Rosenthal to hear their perspectives as well.

They include David Senko, a former construction manager at J.E. Merit Constructors and supervisor of the contractors who died. He said Wednesday he was at BP's refinery in Carson, Calif., when he got a frantic call from a site manager at the Texas City plant minutes after the blast.

"He said, 'Dave, this is bad, it's a major explosion, there are going to be fatalities, and it's just bad.' " Senko said. He tried in vain to call members of his staff, not yet knowing they had died.

When they didn't answer, "that told me it was something major," Senko said.

Almost three years later, Senko continues to struggle with memories of the blast and the loss of his friends and colleagues.

"The $50 million being talked about, it's not even a decimal point on BP's scale," Senko said. "Any one of many, many people could have prevented it from happening."

Others who intend to speak at Monday's hearing include Eva Rowe, whose parents, James and Linda Rowe, were among the contractors who died. Her lawsuit against BP was settled on the eve of trial in November 2006 — the final settlement in a case involving deaths. BP agreed as part of that accord to donate $32 million to schools and hospitals in Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana.

Robbie Gracia, whose husband, William Joseph Gracia, died Jan. 14 in another incident at the plant, intends to speak at the hearing as well, said her family's lawyer, Tony Buzbee.

Gracia died when a metal lid flew off a water filtration vessel as it was being restarted in the plant's ultracracker unit.

His death was the third at the plant since the 2005 disaster. BP, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board are investigating.

The March 2005 blast happened when a tower in a unit that boosts octane in gasoline overfilled with flammable hydrocarbons during startup. Those hydrocarbons went into a blowdown stack that spewed liquid and vapors. The vapors ignited, causing the explosion that killed the contractors in a trailer 121 feet away. Scores more were hurt.

The plea in part requires the company to admit it failed as required by procedure to notify employees in trailers near the unit that the startup was going to occur. Startups can be dangerous when a unit has been down for maintenance, and typically require extra care.

The company has accepted responsibility and apologized for the blast. BP also has spent $1.6 billion to settle civil claims and is spending $1 billion overhauling the plant. The unit that exploded remains closed and won't be restarted.

The company's North American products division was scheduled to enter the plea in November, but several plaintiffs' lawyers slammed the deal and urged Rosenthal to impose a stiffer punishment, most notably a fine of $1 billion or more.

The company countered in filings that the punishment is harsh enough because it forces its U.S. refinery division to become a felon and the agreed-upon fine is the highest ever assessed for a violation of the Clean Air Act.

Rosenthal also postponed that plea hearing to allow victims to have their say, whether it be in writing or in person.

"I'm very glad to be heard," Senko said. "I've been trying to be heard for a long time now."


They'll give judge their views on plea deal
Houston Chronicle
January 30, 2008