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Reminders of death linger 5 years after BP blast

March 24, 2010, 1:51 pm

Originally posted by Loren Steffy - Houston Chronicle - March 22, 2010

The pipes still hang like old shoelaces around the perimeter of the site, melted from the heat and bent by the blast five years ago.

Metal struts jut from the concrete slab, a reminder of trailers that were temporary meeting rooms one minute, a deathtrap the next.

Rusty Norman was one of the first emergency workers to reach the carnage. He had just entered BP's sprawling Texas City refinery on the sunny morning of March 23, 2005, when an explosion ripped through the isomerization unit, which boosts octane in gasoline. He spent the day aiding survivors and locating bodies of the 15 workers who died at the blast site.

BP only recently recovered control of the isom unit, now that federal investigations and private litigation are resolved. The company will demolish the scorched and battered equipment and leave the site vacant, at least for now, refinery manager Keith Casey told me Wednesday.

That, he said, will be a sign of healing, proof that BP is finally coming to terms with its troubled past. Even so, the isom unit remains hallowed ground for workers like Norman, who started at the refinery 33 years ago, when he was 21.

“I still come by here every so often and think about what happened,” he said. “You need that sometimes to remind yourself why we're doing the things we're doing.”

Few events have changed a company — indeed, an industry — the way the 2005 Texas City explosion changed BP. Since the disaster, the company has spent more than $1 billion on improvements at the refinery, and continues to invest more. It's spent another $1 billion or so settling about 1,000 civil lawsuits filed by the more than 170 workers injured in the blast and by families of the dead.

Trailers moved out

Most of the dead were meeting in temporary trailers adjacent to the isom unit when it blew up. Now, BP and most other refiners have removed trailers from inside refineries.

“Throughout the industry, there's a much keener appreciation for the location of these trailers,” said Brent Coon, the Beaumont lawyer who handled many of the civil cases against BP. “We hope they stay out and that people don't forget why they took them out in the first place.”

BP also replaced aging “blow-down drums,” one of which spewed the fluid that led to the 2005 explosion, with flares that would have prevented the accident.

More than 60 percent of the 2,200 BP workers employed at the refinery are new since the disaster, including Casey. In the wake of the tragedy, BP's management structure was upended, resulting in changes to the upper echelon of both its division in the U.S. and its corporate headquarters in London. Lord John Browne, BP's CEO at the time and one of the U.K.'s most renowned businessmen, was forced to resign in part because of investigations that blamed the explosion on BP's culture.

“Its impact was profound,” said Mark Farley, a lawyer with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in Houston, who worked on the staff of a panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III that investigated the cause of the explosion. “Those systems require constant vigilance. You start to think you've got it fixed, and eventually you start to focus on other things. If you let your focus wander too far, you're system starts to slip without your realizing it.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found in 2007 that the explosion resulted from a lethal combination of cost-cutting, a lack of investment in training and mechanical systems and a lack of vigilance in maintaining safety procedures. The company has implemented sweeping changes in process safety procedures and revamped how it operates refineries. Many of those changes have been adopted by BP's rivals as well.

The question that continues to dog BP and the refining industry: Has it done enough?

It has rejected, for example, a Chemical Safety board recommendation that it add a process safety expert to its board of directors.

More fatalities at plant

Refinery accidents still occur with greater frequency than at other complex and dangerous industries' facilities such as nuclear power plants.

“If the airline industry was having the same number of accidents as the refinery industry, I don't think too many people would be flying,” said John Bresland, chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Three more workers have died at the BP refinery in other accidents since the 2005 explosion.

Late last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed an $87 million fine, saying the company hadn't made all the required safety upgrades under an agreement BP signed after the explosion. The agency also found more than 400 “willful” safety violations at the plant.

BP is contesting the findings, claiming it has met the terms of safety requirements. Workers who don't need to be inside the refinery — about 450 of them — now work at a nearby office site. All meetings are held in a single blast-proof building at the refinery's edge.

New control systems include “pre-emptive monitoring,” allowing operators to see pressure problems and other discrepancies building before an alarm sounds and giving them more time to avert disaster.

‘I own the future'

Casey was hired by BP in the fall of 2006 to take over operations of the refinery. He came in with a simple motto: “Somebody else owns the past; I own the future.” Yet almost every decision he's made since then has been defined by the refinery's past.

Barely a year after taking over, he went before a judge and pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, agreed to three years probation and the settlement to which OSHA now claims the company isn't adhering.

Barely a year after taking over, he went before a judge and pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, agreed to three years probation and the settlement to which OSHA now claims the company isn't adhering.

Has BP done enough? Casey and Bresland, the Chemical Safety board chairman, agree that question can be answered only with time and “silent running” — good performance without accidents.

While union workers and others praise BP's efforts to improve its operations since the explosion and address the lapses that led to the tragedy, BP can't escape the ugly truth: without the 15 deaths, the company wouldn't have fixed what was wrong.

“It took the explosion,” said Gary Beevers, international vice president for the United Steelworkers union, which represents more than 1,000 workers at the refinery. “As this industry has shown, it takes something terrible for changes to happen.”

 

 
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