A federal judge on Monday gave victims of BP PLC's deadly 2005 plant explosion one more chance to argue why a guilty plea deal resulting from the federal government's probe of the accident should be rejected.
After a more than six-hour court hearing, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal delayed making a decision on whether to accept or reject the highly criticized plea agreement.
It proposes the London-based oil giant plead guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act and pay a $50 million fine for its criminal conduct in the blast, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others. The company would also be on probation for three years.
During the hearing, several attorneys for victims of the blast said the proposed fine was far too low and argued the penalty should be calculated based on the actual losses victims have experienced, such as lost wages, medical and funeral expenses.
Rosenthal agreed to let victims' and BP's attorneys as well as prosecutors file legal briefs within the next two weeks arguing this issue.
The judge gave no timetable on when she would make a final ruling on whether to accept BP's guilty plea, which was formally entered on behalf of the company on Monday by Texas City plant manager Keith Casey.
In a statement he read in court, Casey said the company had failed to protect its workers.
"The result is a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided. We deeply regret the choice we made and are profoundly sorry for the harm we caused," said Casey, who was not the plant manager at the time of the blast.
Rosenthal was originally set in November to accept BP's guilty plea.
But that was delayed after blast victims' attorneys objected to the plea deal.
During Monday's hearing, victim's attorneys also said the deal didn't provide an independent monitor who would report on whether BP was meeting its safety obligations at the refinery. They also criticized prosecutors for not consulting victims while the deal was being put together.
Rosenthal seemed to disagree with the legal points they made about the independent monitor and lack of consultation. as well as a claim the fine should be based on the profit BP made at the Texas City plant prior to the accident, which was more than $1 billion.
Several family members of those killed in the blast told Rosenthal how their loved ones were violently taken away from them. Several injured workers told the judge how they are still dealing with health and mental problems. All asked the judge to reject the plea deal.
"I think this plea agreement stinks," said Eva Rowe, whose parents, James and Linda Rowe, were killed. Rowe told Rosenthal how her mother's body had to be identified through DNA testing because it was decapitated and badly burned.
"If the purpose of punishment is to give incentive to the wrongdoer to change their ways and do the right thing, this agreement utterly fails," Rowe said.
Becky Linsenbardt, whose husband Larry Wayne Linsenbardt, 58, died, said BP cares more about profits than its workers.
"British Petroleum's true motto is, 'Human life means nothing. Money means everything.' I will not be satisfied with such a lenient, minimal, meaningless punishment," she said crying.
Casey told Rosenthal that BP has made the refinery a safer place by spending more than $1 billion in upgrades and doubling the amount of training.
But the family of William Joseph Gracia, a worker killed in January in an accident at the plant, told Rosenthal that his death is a sign that BP has not done enough to improve safety since the 2005 blast.
"Your honor, I ask that you punish BP in such a way that will encourage real change," Robbie Gracia, the worker's wife, said in a statement read by her daughter. "For a multi-billion dollar company, a $50 million fine is nothing more than a light tap on the wrist."
The fine and plea were part of an October agreement by BP to pay $373 million to settle various criminal and civil charges.
During the hearing, Rosenthal said she wouldn't order a presentence report, which could have significantly delayed the case.
Victims' attorneys had asked for such a report, which are standard in criminal cases and offer a judge a wide range of information, such as a defendant's criminal history, that is used in determining a final sentence.
Prosecutors and BP defended the plea deal, saying it's the harshest option available in assessing criminal punishment for the blast.
"This assertion that we've gone soft on BP is meritless," said prosecutor Stephen Mark McIntyre.
BP attorney Mark Holscher called the blast a "tragedy" and said the company willingly agreed to plead guilty to a felony even though usually the conduct and factors that lead to such accidents can be hard to prosecute.
"These aren't crimes," he said.
BP has said it has paid more than $1.6 billion to compensate victims.
The explosion at the plant, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons.
The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons then were vented from the drum and ignited as the isomerization unit a device that boosts the octane in gasoline started up. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn of the overfilled equipment did not work properly.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, one of several agencies that investigated the accident, found BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the explosion.
JUAN A. LOZANO
The Associated Press
February 5, 2008