British company has not fixed hazards after 2005 explosion at industrial complex that cost 15 lives
Andrew Clark in New York
The US government raised grave questions over BP's safety culture today by imposing a record fine of $87.4m (£53m) on the British company for failing to fix hazards at its Texas City oil refinery in the wake of a disastrous explosion that killed 15 people four years ago.
The fine is four times higher than any previous penalty levied by America's workplace safety regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and it raises the possibility that a criminal prosecution of BP over the tragedy could be reopened.
In a sharply worded critique, the Obama administration's labour secretary, Hilda Solis, said that BP had reneged on commitments to fix flaws at America's third-biggest refinery, leaving the plant, south of Houston, in a condition that "could lead to another catastrophe".
"This administration will not tolerate disregard of our laws," said Solis, who said that BP had a moral responsibility to look after its employees at Texas City. "We don't need to see another loss of another life there. Our motto is we would like to see people go into work and be able to come home to their families."
The Texas City disaster was the worst industrial accident in the US for a generation. It happened in March 2005 when workers overfilled a container with volatile chemicals, sparking an explosion that sent a geyser of burning liquid cascading over nearby accommodation trailers. In addition to claiming 15 lives, the resulting chaos left more than 170 people injured.
The fresh sanction over the accident comes amid a tougher attitude towards business from the new Democratic administration in Washington. It is a severe setback to BP's efforts to repair its reputation in the US after a string of problems earlier in the decade, including leaking oil pipelines in Alaska and a price-fixing scandal in the propane trade.
An official investigation into the causes of the Texas City explosion concluded in 2007 that senior BP executives, under the company's former chief executive, Lord Browne, had failed to act on red flags over safety at Texas City. Fatigue was a factor as one of the employees involved had worked 12-hour shifts for 33 consecutive days. And living quarters were positioned too close to safety-critical machinery.
After the disaster, BP paid a $21.3m fine to OSHA and undertook a long list of improvements under the supervision of an independent safety auditor. But the authority today announced that it had since issued 270 notifications to BP for failure to correct hazards and that it had found 439 new "willful violations".
BP immediately pledged to appeal against the fine, which it described as "disappointing", and said that it "strongly disagrees" with OSHA's findings.
"We believe our efforts at the Texas City refinery to improve process safety performance have been among the most strenuous and comprehensive that the refining industry has ever seen," said Keith Casey, manager of BP's Texas City site. "We remain committed to further enhancing our safety and compliance systems and achieving our goal of becoming an industry leader in process safety."
Senior BP officials expressed dismay, saying that, until recently, they had enjoyed a good relationship with regulators, who have carried out 17 inspections of the plant over four years. Most of the violations relate to management of safety procedures and failures to install pressure relief systems on the type of chemical tower that exploded at Texas City.
Lawyers acting for victims of the disaster suggested that the renewed action could put BP in breach of a plea agreement two years ago in which it pleaded guilty to a single felony and paid $373m to settle a string of criminal charges.
Among those bereaved at Texas City was Eva Rowe, who lost both her parents in the disaster. Through her lawyer, Brent Coon, she issued a statement saying she wanted "criminal prosecution and conviction" of BP executives.
"I think it's fantastic that OSHA is standing up to BP," said Rowe, who secured a settlement that included $32m of donations by BP to her chosen charitable causes. "I hope this sends a message that this behaviour will not be tolerated."
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