TEXAS CITY — Federal investigators said it was possible that an explosion in a water filtration vessel at BP’s Texas City refinery caused a heavy metal lid to fly off, killing a worker in January.
The officials said this was just one possibility being considered as part of an investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. They did not say whether the plant had violated safety regulations.
BP Products North America has pleaded guilty to two felonies, including failing to write and implement proper safety procedures, after a unit at the plant exploded in March 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170.
Some victims of that blast and their families say three accidental deaths at the plant since then show it has not done enough to improve safety, and they have implored a federal judge to reject BP’s plea deal with the government, saying a $50 million fine isn’t harsh enough and the deal doesn’t do enough to ensure the plant will be safe.
William Joseph Gracia, 56, died Jan. 14 when the lid, weighing about 500 pounds, blew off and landed about 10 feet from the vessel. Don Holmstrom, the board’s lead investigator, said he could not confirm whether the lid or some other object struck and killed Gracia, whose death was ruled a result of blunt-force trauma.
When the lid blew off, it sheared off or stripped most of the 24 large, steel bolts that held it in place, Holmstrom said. He said some bolt fragments landed more than 100 feet away.
Ejecting the lid required extreme force, “likely well in excess of the normal operating pressure” of about 150 pounds per square inch, Holmstrom said.
Although photographs of the vessel, about 32 inches in diameter and 9 feet deep, show what appears to be rust on the bolts, Holmstrom said only metallurgical testing will confirm whether the bolts were deficient.
Gracia also suffered injuries “consistent with steam burns,” Holmstrom said.
The vessel is part of a system that filters water used in the refining process. After the water has been used to clean impurities from hydrogen, the water itself is filtered to remove solid impurities, Holmstrom said.
Plant workers have told investigators that the water in the filtration vessel also contained flammable hydrocarbons and flammable gases.
Holmstrom said investigators were still trying to determine whether this was normal, and if so, whether there was a limit to the amount of flammable materials that were supposed to be in the water.
He said investigators have taken water samples from the plant.
The filter was being returned to service essentially for the first time since the explosions in 2005. Holmstrom said it had been run for only about eight minutes since then.
The vessel was part of the refinery’s ultracracker unit.
Tony Buzbee, an attorney for Gracia’s family, said plant workers have suggested the ultracracker was not properly turned around, or prepared for the restart, which could have resulted in the accident.
Many of those injured or killed in 2005 were in or around temporary trailers used to support work at the ultracracker unit, which was under a turnaround at the time of the blasts that happened in a nearby isomerization unit.
Those explosions damaged the ultracracker, which was brought back online last year.
Holmstrom said investigators would consider whether BP warned workers in surrounding areas of the plant that the unit Gracia was working on was undergoing a startup.
The chemical safety board is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents.
“We hope there can be lessons learned from this tragic incident so that it will not happen again” anywhere in the industry, said board member William Wark.
BP has refrained from speculating on the cause of the accident.
“We have been cooperating with (the board) since their arrival at the refinery and will continue to do so,” said spokesman Ronnie Chappell.
“Our own investigation continues. When complete and we know the facts, we will be sharing them with employees and with others in industry.”
Buzbee said Gracia’s death was among a string of hundreds of leaks, spills and chemicals releases at the plant since June 2000, including an incident in April 2007 when workers said fumes were causing respiratory and skin problems.
BP sent about 100 people to a hospital but said there was no evidence of any chemical release.
“We hope that the chemical safety board will not only just focus on just one filtration unit, but will also focus on the plant as a whole because there’s a major problem with the physical plant at BP Texas City that would allow something like this to occur,” Buzbee said.
The Galveston Daily News
February 8, 2008