BP Texas City Explosion Brent Coon

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Anger lingers after fatal refinery blasts

March 24, 2010, 9:47 am


Published March 24, 2010

Five years of sadness and anger were evident as David Senko read the names of the 11 contract workers he supervised at BP’s Texas City refinery. Each was among the 15 people killed on March 23, 2005, when a series of explosions ripped through the refinery.

“I could not live with myself if I turned my back on these guys,” Senko, the former construction manager for BP contractor J.E. Merit, said during a commemoration event of the fatal blasts on Tuesday. “I love them and I see their faces every day.

“They were all great people hurt by people, killed by people (at BP).”

While the commemoration event in a law office in Houston was supposed to focus primarily on what progress had been made since the blasts shook the nation’s third-largest oil refinery five years ago, Senko’s statements were evidence that the frustration remains that BP’s top executives never were held personally accountable for what happened.

“Nearly my entire project team was killed that day,” Senko said. “All the result of criminal and negligent acts of people, employees (of BP) not companies.”

No Accountability

While BP was found guilty in a federal case and settled more than 4,000 explosion-related lawsuits, Senko complained the company’s top brass never was held accountable even as federal, state and even BP internal investigations found the corporation’s process safety culture was severely lacking.

“Not one, none, have been disciplined, fined, terminated, indicted, tried, incarcerated or held accountable in any way for their very preventable, criminal, almost murderous, event that took place five years ago,” he said.

Instead, Senko said BP top executives were given promotions, bonuses or attractive retirement packages.

As a result, the Texas City refinery “as far as I am concerned remains a crime scene,” he said, noting that had he not been called to a problem at another BP refinery, he would have been in Texas City the day of the explosion.

Safety Culture Improved

No one argued with Senko’s frustration, even as some of BP’s hardest critics acknowledged things have changed within BP.

Joe Bilancich, the former head of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, the union that represents the bulk of BP’s work force and who retired from the company last year, said he could attest that there was an increase in process safety at the refinery.

“It was not as fast as employees wanted or any of us (with the union) wanted, but it was improving,” he said.

Bilancich, now an industry mediation consultant, said since his retirement, he has kept tabs on the refinery through former co-workers. He said the dedication to an improved safety culture continues.

Jim Lefton, the assistant regional director for the USW, said much of the improved safety commitment from the company came after management decided to partner with the union on safety programs.

He said the company had accomplished nine of 10 points for improved safety at the refinery, including reducing work hours, teaming with the USW to form a process safety team and to better investigate mishaps, including near misses.

The company also has updated its safety education programs and drastically improved its maintenance staffing, Lefton said.

The only area lacking was partnering with environmental groups to improve the refinery’s environmental performance. Lefton said that was not the fault of the company or the union but rather finding the proper environmental groups to partner with.

“Have they corrected every problem? No,” Lefton said. “Are they ever going to correct everything where it’s a perfect refinery? No.

“Is this going to happen again? Yes. It may not be at BP, but it’s going to happen almost as sure as we are sitting here.

“But I can honestly say that BP up to this point has done a pretty good job in terms of what they have done to correct some of the situations.”

Time For Reflection

As the commemoration continued in Houston, workers at BP’s Texas City refinery went about their regular work day until 1:20 p.m. — the time of the explosion five years ago — when they observed a moment of reflection, company officials said.

“Not a single day goes by where we don’t think about the tragic events of the day and rededicate ourselves to being an industry leader in process safety,” BP Texas City refinery manager Keith Casey said. “We deeply regret what occurred five years ago and have since made real progress in our systematic approach to process safety and in improving the culture of our organization to see that it never happens again.”

Company officials said, in addition to the $1 billion overhaul to upgrade and modernize the 76-year-old refinery, BP has reduced its risk profile materially to lessen the likelihood of a similar blast.

The company points to reduced chemical emissions and a declining recordable injury rate as evidence the safety culture within the facility is far better than it was five years ago.

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Background

It was at about 1:20 p.m. on March 23, 2005, that an overflow of highly flammable material shot from a sub-unit at BP Texas City’s isomerization unit and was ignited by a truck’s idling diesel engine. That set off a cascade of explosions that leveled nearby office trailers and changed safety operations not just at BP but at similar facilities across the nation. What followed was a $1 billion overhaul of the refinery, several federal investigations that included the largest fine ever issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a criminal conviction of the company for environmental violations related to the blasts and the settlement of 4,016 explosion-related civil claims against the company.

In October, OSHA proposed a new round of fines totaling $87 million and noted what it claims were 439 new “willful” violations involving pressure-release systems on units at the refinery.

The company is contesting OSHA’s latest action and has asked for a review panel to take a look at the findings.

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Those Who Died

Lorena-Cruz Alexander

Glenn Bolton

Rafael Herrera Jr.

Daniel J. Hogan III

Jimmy Ray Hunnings

Morris “Monk” King

Larry Wayne Linsenbardt

Arthur Galvan Ramos

Ryan Rodriguez

James Warren Rowe

Linda Marie Hammer Rowe

Kimberly Smith

Susan Duhan Taylor

Larry Sheldon Thomas

Eugene White

 

 
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