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Lawyer questions bolts’ strength in BP death

TEXAS CITY — The lawyer for the family of a worker killed Monday at BP’s Texas City refinery said he was told by people who work at the facility that bolts on a high-pressure vessel were loose or not strong enough, allowing a lid to blow off.

BP said it was not immediately clear what caused the accident.

The death of William Joseph Gracia, described by the company as “a veteran BP operations supervisor,” was the third accidental death at the refinery in as many years and the third since 15 people were killed and almost 200 were injured in the March 2005 explosions.

“So they’re basically averaging one a year,” said attorney Tony Buzbee. “We’ve already had our death for this year, and it’s only January.”

Family Wants Answers

Judge Wayne Mallia of the 405th Judicial District Court in Galveston granted a temporary restraining order at the request of Gracia’s family.

The court order prevents BP from altering the accident scene and allows lawyers and consultants for Gracia’s family to be involved in the investigation.

BP said it notified Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the accident, which happened about 4 p.m. Monday.

The company also said the accident site and physical evidence had been secured.

BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said Gracia died of head injuries sustained as workers prepared to put a high-pressure water filtration vessel in service.

“We don’t know what caused this terrible incident and, as part of this investigation, we’ll be looking at the lid, at the bolts used to hold it in place, at how the filter change was conducted — all aspects of the circumstances surrounding this incident. But I’m not going to speculate on what the investigation may ultimately find,” Chappell said in a telephone interview.

Water was being introduced into the filter system when the lid released, he said. The vessel normally operates at a pressure of 175 pounds per square inch.

“Mr. Gracia received a head injury, but it has not yet been determined how the injury occurred,” Chappell said in a written statement. “An externally led investigation of the incident continues and will include close scrutiny of the filtration vessel lid.”

Checkered Past

The vessel was part of the refinery’s ultracracker unit. In Jan. 9 filings with state regulators, BP said it was restarting the unit late last week, following maintenance.

Buzbee 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.

‘Deeply Saddened’

Gracia, 56, was revived by BP emergency workers at the scene of the accident, and transported the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he later died, Buzbee said. He had burns and injuries to his hands, face and head.

Gracia had worked at BP for more than 30 years and was a shift foreman, Buzbee said.

“We’re gonna get to the bottom of this, and it’s another sad day in Texas City,” he said. “My question personally is, ‘Is this ever gonna end?’”

In July 2006, a contract worker died when he was crushed between a pipe stack and a mechanical lift. In June 2007, a contract worker was electrocuted at the plant.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated both incidents, and BP was not cited in either case, Chappell said. Reports from the federal agency were not immediately available Tuesday.

“We’re deeply saddened that someone who worked with us for more than 30 years died in a workplace accident,” Chappell said.

“We’re committed to finding out what occurred and taking steps to prevent something like this ever happening again.”

Work Stopped

Immediately after the accident, BP halted all nonessential work at the refinery, a stoppage that continued Tuesday, Chappell said. Work was expected to resume in the next 24 hours and overall production at the facility remained normal, he said.

The refinery has been operating at about half its capacity of 470,000 barrels a day since the March 2005 explosions.

It missed an expected return to full production at the end of 2007, but was on course to reach about 400,000 barrels a day in January or February.

BP has spent about $1 billion repairing the refinery.

The London-based company pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act for operating under unsafe conditions leading up to March 2005.

In the plea bargain with the U.S. Department of Justice, BP agreed to pay a $50 million fine.

Victims’ families are still challenging the agreement, saying the fine, which will be paid to the U.S. treasury, was too lenient.

The company has exhausted $1.6 billion it set aside to settle death and injury claims.

 

Mark Collette
The Galveston Daily News
January 16, 2008
Texas City

Lawyer questions bolts’ strength in BP death

By Mark Collette
The Daily News

Published January 16, 2008