Investigation Continues After First Anniversary of BP Blast

A year after the worst U.S. refinery accident in more than a decade, and as survivors and families of the 15 victims that perished in the BP Texas City refinery blast continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones, several government agencies continue in full pursuit to investigate the disaster.

One of them, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), expects to issue its final report on the accident, including a determination of root causes and new safety recommendations, at a public meeting in Texas City in late 2006.

"At CSB, we have not moved on to other things; the accident 1 year ago remains a central focus of our daily work," said CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt. "This solemn anniversary reminds us all of the need to prevent such accidents from happening anywhere else through positive change."

The CSB investigative team has conducted more than 350 witness interviews, collected tens of thousands of documents and expended almost $2 million in the costliest and most complex investigation in the agency's 8-year history.

OSHA, EPA Courses of Action

OSHA in September levied a $21.4 million fine against BP and issued more than 300 willful violations. Many of them focused on the lack of maintenance and safety management guidelines at the refinery. According to an OSHA spokesperson, the violations were so extensive that the agency referred the case to the Department of Justice. Officials from the Justice Department have refused to comment on the case.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency also is investigating the incident for possible civil action.

In addition to the fines imposed by OSHA, BP, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies, faces victims' lawsuits, as some reports have suggested that a lack of effective management played a role in the explosion.

The accident occurred during the startup of the isomerization unit, when a distillation tower was overfilled, flooding a nearby blowdown drum with flammable liquid. The resulting geyser-like release from an atmospheric vent stack led to a series of explosions that killed and injured workers in nearby trailers.

CSB Findings

CSB issued an extensive set of preliminary findings about the accident at a public meeting on Oct. 28 in Texas City. The reports said part of the unit that relieves pressure was not hooked up to a flare that burns off vapor and could have prevented or minimized the accident and also found that BP fostered bad management at the plant and failed to fix problems.

CSB also said workers' trailers were too close to the unit, and asked the petrochemical industry to rethink the location of trailers in refineries.

Recently, CSB retained an expert in human factors safety to assist in the investigation. On Nov. 10, CSB noted that some operators involved in the startup operation had been working long hours for more than 30 consecutive days, and that training resources had been reduced between 1998 and 2005, even as workload increased for the control board operator position. The CSB team also has been studying how widespread is the use of blowdown drums instead of flare systems for handling hydrocarbon releases at oil refineries.

CSB commended the way BP made changes to recognize potential hazards and for naming former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to head an 11-member panel in October. Since then, the panel has conducted three public hearings at BP refinery locations.

"We commend BP for committing to remove antiquated blowdown drums from all its U.S. refineries and for developing an improved siting policy for trailers," Merrit said. "These measures will contribute to improved safety at the Texas City refinery and other locations, and I urge all oil and chemical companies to consider similar actions, if they have not already done so."

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