The Firm . BP, Lawyer Spar Over Claims of Plant Leak


BP, Lawyer Spar Over Claims of Plant Leak

A Houston lawyer is threatening to seek a court order to force BP to shut down and repair a unit at its Texas City refinery that the attorney alleges is leaking flammable material.

BP said the claim is inaccurate, but did not explicitly deny the unit is leaking.

In a letter sent to BP attorneys Friday, Tony Buzbee alleged that a four-day leak of hydrocarbons from the refinery's Pipestill 3A unit poses an "extreme hazard" to people inside and outside the plant.

Buzbee said Friday afternoon he will petition the court on Monday if BP doesn't shut down the unit.

In a strongly worded statement, BP suggested the situation is none of Buzbee's business.

"There is no need for Mr. Buzbee to be involved in this matter and no need for him to go to court," BP spokesman Michael Marr said in an e-mail. "Galveston County citizens and community leaders should be skeptical of claims by a lawyer with a presumed financial motive to make them. The fact that Mr. Buzbee sent his letter to the press at the same time as he sent it to BP suggests that publicity may be another goal."

Marr said the company has advised regulatory agencies about the status of the equipment discussed in Buzbee's letter — which he copied to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Galveston County district attorney, the county health district, the Texas attorney general, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"This company, which has the worst safety record in the U.S.'s recent past, has a gas leak right now at its plant that has been leaking since Tuesday that could cause an explosion. Did they deny it? No. Did they deny they refuse to shut down to fix it? No," Buzbee said in an e-mail to the Chronicle on Friday.

OSHA said it is looking into the situation.

OSHA said it is looking into the situation.

Citing clients who work at the refinery, Buzbee said the leak grew during the week and is now apparent to the naked eye, not just to monitoring equipment.

Not all leaks and releases require public disclosure, and BP had not reported a leak to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as of Friday afternoon, according to the commission's public database.

BP's Texas City refinery has had a string of unpermitted releases this year, including one that lasted 40 days in April and May that let out 17,000 pounds of benzene. Thousands of Texas City residents have joined class-actions filed by Buzbee and other lawyers, alleging the residents were sickened by toxic fumes. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also has sued the company over the "excessive emissions event."

On Wednesday, two workers suffered serious burns when working on the refinery's Pipestill 3B unit, which is near the one Buzbee says is leaking. Both were taken to hospitals for treatment. OSHA said it is investigating the incident.

BP also has paid millions in civil settlements and penalties, and pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, in connection with a 2005 explosion at the Texas City plant that killed 15 workers


Monica Hatcher
Houston Chronicle
September 24, 2010