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BP faces fresh Texas City probe

The US government said yesterday that it would open another full investigation into BP's biggest refinery after continued accidents raised questions about safety three years after an explosion killed 15 people at the Texas facility.

The US Chemical Safety Board, which conducted an exhaustive two-year probe into the 2005 fatal blast at Texas City, returned in January just days after a third fatal accident since the explosion.

Their three-week preliminary investigation into the latest death convinced investigators they needed to pursue a formal investigation.

That the CSB has re-opened such a probe, just a year after concluding its last one, is embarrassing to Tony Hayward, who took over as BP chief executive last May. Under Mr Hayward, BP has emphasised it has improved safety at the facility with $1bn in upgrades.

William Wark, a CSB board member, said: "They are making improvements. How much further they have to go is speculation.''

On January 14 BP was restarting a section of the ultracracker unit, across a road from the isomerisation unit that exploded in 2005, when the 500lb top of a large steel filter housing blew off and landed more than 10 feet away, fatally injuring Joseph Gracia, a BP supervisor.

The CSB felt further investigation was warranted by the severity of the accident, the likelihood of hazardous chemicals being involved, the learning potential for BP and the industry and the number of deaths over the years at the plant - 41 people in 32 years.

The top had been secured by 24 large steel bolts.

"When the accident occurred, most of the bolts were either sheared off or stripped,'' said Don Holmstrom, lead investigator in this and the previous investigation.

The CSB is exploring a possible internal explosion in the filter; whether hydrocarbons were, or should have been, inside; the mechanical integrity of the bolts; and whether corrosion was a factor. It is also reviewing whether BP had alerted staff that it was restarting a section of the ultracracker unit.

BP said it had been cooperating with the CSB as it conducted its own investigation. The shares fell 8½p to close at 536p.

 

Sheila McNulty
Financial Times
February 8, 2008