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Steffy: BP settlement may raise questions for victims’ families

December 31, 1969, 5:59 pm

Originally posted by Loren Steffy - Houston Chronicle - March 3, 2012

As Katherine Rodriguez read about the tentative settlement between BP and thousands of businesses and individuals, the memories flooded back.

She remembered driving to Galveston for the first day of a different legal proceeding with the same defendant. Her family was suing BP after her father, Ray Gonzalez, was killed at BP’s Texas City refinery in the fall of 2004.

It was March 23, 2005.

As opening arguments in her father’s case began, a massive explosion ripped through the same refinery where he had sustained fatal injuries six months earlier, killing 15 more workers and injuring more than 170 others.

BP quickly offered to settle the case and Rodriguez’s family accepted, relieved to be spared the pain of reliving their heartbreak over a lengthy trial.

But as she read about the Deepwater Horizon settlement, she thought of the 30 lives lost in BP operations since her father’s death — the 15 killed in Texas City in 2005, the four who died there since then and the 11 who perished aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

She thought of the documents she saw later that emerged from the relentless legal fight by Eva Rowe, whose parents died in the 2005 explosion. Those documents, more than any unearthed in other investigations, showed BP’s corporate culture of putting profit ahead of safety.

Gonzalez, a pipe fitter with more than 30 years experience, died after he and two co-workers were sprayed with 500-degree water from a ruptured pipe seal. He lingered in the hospital for more than two months, enduring painful skin grafts to treat the burns over most of his body before dying from his injuries.

Investigations into BP accidents that occurred as early as four years before Gonzalez’s death had cited BP’s culture as a contributing factor. It’s one thing to read the findings of an investigative committee and quite another to see the company’s own internal documents and hear the actual words of the decision makers, Rodriguez said.

In a motion filed last week in the massive civil action related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP asked that any written references to previous accidents be stricken from the record. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier had already ruled that witness testimony heard in open court couldn’t delve into BP’s past, and the company wants to extend that ruling to written documents as well.

The case, however it proceeds, isn’t going before a jury. The judge would have to review the very documents BP wants stricken into to rule on the company’s motion. BP’s concern, it seems, has less to do with how such documentation may influence the judge’s decisions in the case and more to do with sanitizing its own sordid record.

Settlements like the one BP reached Friday can be a mixed blessing for those who lost loved ones in the accident or escaped the burning rig with their lives. About a dozen such cases are still pending, and it wasn’t immediately clear how many would be included in Friday’s settlement.

Those who do settle may feel some comfort, a sense of closure, a readiness to move on, Rodriguez said. But they may also find, as she did after her own settlement, questions linger.

“All the documents, all the testimony — they’ll never see that,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll have some peace and closure, and they’ll never have to go through the heart-wrenching testimony, but they also don’t get to hear the truth. That’s not complete closure.”

The Deepwater Horizon case is so massive that new evidence may emerge in spite of the settlement. The government says it intends to aggressively pursue its claims, and it may still seek criminal charges. BP’s partners in the ill-fated well continue to fight over culpability for the disaster.

Those disputes, though, are more focused on finding a number — a fine, a percentage of liability, or perhaps, though unlikely, years of a prison sentence.

With each new failing, BP seems to start with a clean slate of its own corporate fiction. Too many of the Deepwater Horizon investigations failed to acknowledge BP’s track record, just as federal regulators refuse to acknowledge it in considering the company’s requests for new offshore drilling permits.

“If this information doesn’t get released because of the settlement, then what happens on the next rig?” Rodriguez said. “More lives are lost. More families are grieving.”

Original link - http://fuelfix.com/blog/2012/03/03/steffy-bp-settlement-may-raise-questions-for-victims%E2%80%99-families/

 

 
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