Nearly three years after the tragic explosion that killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others, BP's Texas City refinery remains the nation's deadliest -- despite a $1 billion cleanup and more than $20 million in fines.
Even before the catastrophic March 2005 explosion, BP had made its way onto an OSHA list of problematic employers, and it continues to have more fatal accidents at its U.S. refineries than any other major energy company, based on a Houston Chronicle analysis of fatalities from 2005 to 2008.
Five more lives have been lost at BP refineries since the March 2005 disaster. Three died in the BP Texas City plant, keeping it at the top as the most lethal in the country. Two others died at the BP refinery in Cherry Point, Wash., in 2005 and 2007.
The accidents have again drawn the attention of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which generally investigates only the nation's worst industrial incidents.
"We are clearly concerned by the frequency of deaths at this refinery," said William E. Wright, a CSB board member and interim executive. "The apparent rate of fatalities is now higher than it was prior to March 2005."
By comparison, the nation's other 146 refineries together had nine fatal incidents between 2005 and 2008.
BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell argued that BP's billion dollar investment in safety and a constant stream of repair and upgrades have made a real difference in Texas City, particularly in lowering injury rates.
"We're profoundly disappointed that the safety initiatives that have kept injury rates at Texas City below the refining and construction industry averages failed to prevent the fatalities that have occurred, " Chappell said. "While we are making progress at Texas City, these deaths are a reminder that we have more to do."
So far, BP has not been blamed by federal inspectors in the most recent Texas City deaths, which occurred in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Two investigations remain open, according to Rich Fairfax, OSHA's director of enforcement.
And despite its catastrophic year in 2005, Chappell said, BP has reduced deaths at its 10 refineries worldwide. Four BP refineries -- including one in Toledo, Ohio, and others in Australia and Spain -- have had no fatalities in the last decade.
Of the three men who have died at BP Texas City since the March 2005 explosion, one was contractor Ronnie Graves, 52, who was crushed on July 21, 2006. Electrician Richard Leining, 44, was electrocuted on June 5, 2007. On Jan. 14, William Joseph Gracia, 56, a veteran BP supervisor, was killed when a heavy metal lid unexpectedly flew off a water vessel.
A critical factor
For decades, David Leining worked with Gracia at BP. Leining, who was injured in the March 2005 explosion and whose cousin Richard Leining died at the refinery last year, said his experience has convinced him that "BP cares more about money than safety."
"They will kill again," he said.
Chemical Safety Board investigators returned to Texas City this year after the death of Gracia.
Both OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board continue to investigate why the 500-pound metal lid, which had been bolted down, suddenly flew off a vessel containing more than 100-degree gray water and then struck and killed Gracia.
"The rate of ongoing fatalities was a critical factor in our decision to investigate the accident that killed Mr. Gracia" said Wright, of the safety board. "We are encouraged by some steps BP has taken since March 2005. ... Any fatal accident highlights the need to do more."
The enormous Texas City refinery, where many units are more than a half-century old, has been slated for continual upgrades since the
Every shutdown or slowdown for repairs can mean millions in lost revenues and reduced petroleum supplies because the refinery remains one of the world's largest. It is the fourth largest refinery in the United States with a capacity of 417,000 barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Chappell said the massive efforts have created an atmosphere of almost constant heavy construction involving as many as 5,000 workers at one time in the 1,200-acre facility.
Graves and Leining were contractors involved in upgrades and safety improvements at BP Texas City. Chappell said both appeared to have made mistakes that contributed to their deaths.
Chappell said Leining, an experienced electrician, violated BP policies by working on a live circuit. He said OSHA has not cited BP in Graves' case, which remains under review. No violations were issued in Leining's death.
The Chronicle's analysis found 10 U.S. refineries with more than one fatality in the last decade -- including BP refineries in Texas City and in Cherry Point, Wash.
BP's other fatal accidents from 2005 to 2008 included the deaths of two contractors in Washington. In the most recent incident, the contractor's employer -- but not BP -- was cited by OSHA after a diver apparently drowned while attempting to inspect a piling just offshore from the coastal refinery in August 2007.
BP did pay a $2,100 fine in the earlier May 2005 fatality at the same Washington refinery. That death involved a contract worker hired to clean a vessel at the refinery, who lost contact with a safety monitor and was found unconscious in about 8 to 10 inches of water, BP said.
BP paid a record $21 million safety fine to OSHA after the March 2005 explosion in Texas City.
Though that disaster brought unprecedented pressure on BP, its Texas City refinery has long been fraught with safety issues. At least 41 people have died there since the mid-1970s. In a civil trial in December, former plant manager Don Parus testified that the March 2005 tragedy was "years in the making."
"I think it's deeply rooted in the safety culture," testified Parus, one of several supervisors initially blamed for the accident by BP.
Parus recently retired.
After the March 2005 accident, the Chemical Safety Board criticized not only BP but OSHA for failing to make U.S. refineries safer.
Since then, OSHA has stepped up inspections at all five of BP's U.S.
refineries, which resulted in additional fines and citations. Fairfax said that under intensified monitoring, BP officials have generally completed agreed-upon improvements.
"They've cooperated, but if they don't do what they're supposed to do we'll crack down again," he said.
Last June, OSHA red-flagged all refineries as one of the nation's most dangerous regulated industries and ordered an unprecedented program of inspections and enforcement of its so-called "process safety management" standard.
"The large number of fatal or catastrophic incidents in the petroleum refining industry indicates the need for a national emphasis program."
said the directive issued by Edwin G. Foulke Jr., assistant secretary of labor.
Safety vs. production?
The Chronicle's analysis showed at least 29 workers have died at U.S.
refineries since 2005, including the 15 people who died in March 2005 at Texas City.'
"None of these plants are reinvesting like they should -- production is at an all-time high," said Brent Coon, a Beaumont attorney who has represented dozens of families of workers killed and injured in Texas City and faults failure of government oversight and corporate greed.
"They're pushing the operating envelope at all of these plants, and that makes all of them to some degree time bombs," he said.
In the nationwide analysis of all U.S. refinery deaths, the Chronicle found 29 people died between 2005 and 2008 at facilities run by eight companies. Twenty of the deaths were in Texas -- 18 in Texas City and two at refineries in Port Arthur.
Three workers died at refineries in California, two in Washington and two in an accident in Delaware.
Two others died in Minnesota and Louisiana.
Chappell argues that BP, which runs five U.S. refineries, has made all of its refineries significantly safer because of the lessons learned from the March 2005 explosion.
"The goal is to eliminate fatalities everywhere we operate," he said.
Researcher Joyce Lee and staff writer Kristen Hays contributed to this report.
Lise Olsen and Tom Fowler
The Houston Chronicle
February 24, 2008