The Firm . BP Texas City: deja vu all over again


BP Texas City: deja vu all over again

Just days after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released preliminary findings of its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon accident that showed BP failed to apply lessons from earlier disasters to its offshore operations we now see it didn’t learn them onshore, either.

After BP’s explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 people and wounded some 170, the company was quick to point out how it had spent $1 billion on improving the facility, including installing flares. The flares, which the company had delayed installing for years, could have prevented the accident.

Yet once again, we find BP cutting corners, as it did before the 2005 accident, and for the same reasons — saving money.

In 2010, even as the Deepwater Horizon disaster was raging in the Gulf of Mexico, BP released pollutants into the air at the Texas City plant through a 300-foot flare. The releases were so large that they exceeded the capability of the flare to burn them off. BP notified state authorities, as required, but neither the company nor the state bothered to tell the citizens of Texas City who were actually breathing the stuff.

The release, which included more than 17,000 pounds of cancer-causing benzene, began after a compressor broke down in the refinery’s ultracracker unit. As Harvey Rice reports in today’s Chronicle, findings in a $500 million civil lawsuit revealed that:

The company could have shut down operations to keep the gases from venting, but management decided to keep operating at a lower capacity while the compressor was repaired, according to the depositions. Based on testimony by several BP officials, the company earned between $6.7 million and $13 million by continuing to operate.

It’s an all-too-familiar pattern that has become BP’s operating trademark. Internal emails uncovered in the lawsuit show BP officials knew as far back as 2007 that the flare might not have been able to handle such a release. Tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the time showed that emissions from the flare were as much as six times greater than BP reported. And BP’s own environmental specialist warned that the flare was built from an old and inefficient design.

Just as they did in the months leading up to the 2005 explosion, BP officials again rejected calls from workers at the plant for money for repairs and improvements, according to documents in the lawsuit. As Rice reported:

As BP struggled to repair the compressor, a BP official sent an email on April 16, 2010: “I wish the project people who fought us and justified overruling us were still here today to feel our pain. But instead they have moved on to more wonderful and greater things. I sure hope they get good bonuses for (expletive) us over.”

Another BP employee replied, “It just reminds me of a saying: ‘The bitterness of poor quality will be remembered long after the joy of a low price is forgotten.’?”

Yet BP has shown a perpetual love for the low price, for the short-term profit, even if the long-term consequences are paid for in lives. Twenty-two workers have died at the Texas City refinery since 2004 as BP deferred maintenance, cut budgets and ignored warning signs. Eleven more men died aboard the Deepwater Horizon because financial concern trumped safety.

Repeated fines at Texas City have done little to change the pattern. BP officials keep saying that safety is a priority, but the company’s continuing pattern of operations shows otherwise.

Loren Steffey

Houston Chronicle

July 26, 2012

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