BP Products North America formally pleaded guilty Monday in the deadly explosions of 2005, but the outcome of the criminal case against the oil company remains unresolved.
A federal judge said she would consider objections by victims who say a $50 million fine is too lenient and the plea deal between the government and BP does little to ensure the company will exercise adequate safety measures in the future.
Keith Casey, manager of the Texas City refinery, was in the odd position of standing before a court and pleading guilty to a felony on behalf a company and a refinery which he did not oversee in 2005.
After he entered the company’s plea, victims and their attorneys stood before Judge Lee Rosenthal and delivered tearful statements that provided some of the most detailed public accounts yet of how the explosions radically altered the lives of victims and their families.
BP has settled hundreds of civil cases stemming from the March 2005 explosions — including all involving deaths — thus avoiding the public spectacle of victim after victim testifying about the personal cost of the crimes the company has acknowledged it committed.
In a prepared statement, Ralph Dean detailed how his father-in-law died in the explosions, while his wife, Alisa Dean, was injured in a trailer near the isomerization unit where the blasts originated.
Ralph Dean ran into the trailer as flaming debris rained down from the sky, found his wife and lifted a bookcase off her.
Ninety days later, she regained consciousness to learn her father was dead and her lungs burned beyond repair. His attorney said BP fought multiple attempts to get hospital bills paid.
Now, Dean said, his wife can’t spend much time outside due to lung problems, and he can’t work because he has to take care of her and their young child.
Becky Linsenbardt described the silence and loneliness that greets her at home each day in the place of her dead husband, Larry, killed in the blasts.
And Robbie Gracia, wife of William Gracia, who died at the plant three weeks ago when a lid blew off of a high-pressure vessel at the refinery’s ultracracker unit, told the judge her husband’s death and two others since March 2005 show BP has yet to implement adequate safety measures.
In a prepared statement read to the judge by a relative, she said her husband did not complain when training was reduced, when maintenance was curtailed, when budgets were cut, when hours were extended, when responsibilities were piled on.
“He told me several times that he was concerned about the ultracracker unit,” Gracia said. “But Joe was a company man. He was loyal. He didn’t believe in badmouthing his company. He always tried to put a good face on a bad situation. BP repaid him by refusing to spend the money to make sure the plant was safe for its workers.”
When a unit at the refinery exploded in 2005, her husband of 36 years ran to the center of the chaos to help people who were hurt, she said.
Others spoke about lingering depression, anxiety, nightmares and physical problems caused by the blast.
Entering the guilty plea, Casey said the company failed its workers and was “profoundly sorry for the harm we caused.”
The judge delayed her decision on whether to accept the plea, allowing the attorneys for the government, BP and the victims further time to debate whether the plea deal is adequate.
Victims’ attorneys say the government has deliberately excluded them from the plea process and didn’t consider all of the measurable damages caused by the company’s criminal conduct.
The company was charged with violations of the Clean Air Act for failing to maintain and implement sufficient written safety procedures.
The government said $50 million was the maximum amount it could prove BP should pay under complex federal guidelines and rulings in previous criminal cases.
Government attorneys said if the judge rejects the plea deal or orders further investigation, it will unnecessarily prolong the case.
But victim’s attorneys said granting the deal would set a dangerous precedent for excluding victims from weighing in on decisions in future criminal cases.
Government attorneys said they didn’t want to confer directly with hundreds of victims because news of BP’s intention to plead guilty could have prevented BP from receiving fair, due process.
They also said such news could have prejudiced future juries in the event that the government charges individual employees of BP with crimes.
Victim’s attorneys said the government’s failure to confer with them throughout the process leading up to the plea deal violated the Crime Victims Rights Act of 2004.
Near the end of the daylong hearing, Judge Rosenthal noted that, because the act is relatively new, this case presents unusual, complex circumstances that are without precedent.
BP has said the refinery is safer because it spent $1 billion repairing and upgrading the facility, and doubled its safety training and safety workforce.
The company said it has paid $1.6 billion to victims settling civil lawsuits.
The explosions killed 15 people and injured more than 170. They occurred when a piece of equipment overfilled with flammable liquid that ignited as a refinery unit started up. Warning sirens and gauges didn’t work as they should have.
The Galveston Daily News
February 5, 2008