The March 23, 2005 accident killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others when a unit overflowed with gasoline and exploded while being restarted for repair work. The 12 victims – four permanently injured survivors and eight family members of workers killed in the blast – filed a motion in federal court with attorney David Perry on Nov. 20 to impose a higher fine for BP.
Perry stated that BP’s “prior history of terrible misconduct” is the basis for increasing the fine.
In a plea bargain last month, BP pled guilty to exposing employees to toxic emissions resulting from the 2005 Texas City refinery blast, spilling 200,000 gallons of oil from corroded Alaskan pipelines and attempting to corner the propane-trading market. The plea bargain resulted in $373 million of combined fines, including a $50 million criminal fine for the refinery explosion, to end BP’s criminal liability from these issues. Perry and the Texas City victims called this agreement “shockingly lenient.”
“The plea agreement proposed by the government and the defendant BP Products North America should be rejected as shockingly lenient and providing preferential treatment to BP,” they said.
According to Perry, the fine amount would allow BP to keep 95 percent of the reported $1 billion profits the company earned in the 14 months leading up to the refinery blast. The maximum statutory punishment, meanwhile, is double the defendant’s gross gain or loss from the criminal act.
“Letting BP keep a billion in profits makes a mockery of the notion crime does not pay,” Perry stated.
Victims also spoke out against the Justice Department’s decision to fine BP $303 million for commodity trading crimes, which is six times more than the fine to cover the Texas City explosion.
“This deal is an insult from both the government and BP,” said Perry.
Victims Object to Judge Choice
In addition to requesting higher fines, the refinery victims objected to the judge originally selected to preside over the sentence hearing. U.S. District Judge Gray Miller was a partner in the Fulbright & Jaworski law firm at the time of the 2005 explosion, a firm that represented BP in the following proceedings.
Miller voluntarily removed himself from the case within hours of Perry filing court papers requesting that he step aside.
“We applaud Judge Miller for acting promptly when the situation was called to his attention,” Perry stated. “Judge Miller’s action will assure that BP’s criminal conduct will receive judicial scrutiny free of any appearance of impropriety.”
U.S. District Judge David Hittner has since been assigned to the case. In the past, Hittner has rejected government-negotiated settlements. If he rejects the government’s deal with BP, the company can choose to continue negotiations or withdraw its guilty pleas and go to court.
More Allegations for BP: Permit Fraud
Lawyers further claimed that in 2003, BP committed fraud in obtaining its refinery emissions permit by hiring a state environmental engineer to work on various aspects of the permitting process. This would violate the state’s “revolving door” law that calls for permit applications to be rejected if the same people work on both sides of the process.
According to the allegations, BP Senior Air Engineer Rueben Herrera worked on the same air pollution permit he’d previously supervised as a regulator.
The permit allowed BP to operate its Texas City refinery without replaced outdated emissions controls. Gasoline vapors entered an inadequate emission control system in the refinery and then ignited, causing the fatal 2005 blast.
Houston attorney Mark Lanier said that Herrera’s connection to both sides of BP’s air quality permit showed that that BP “flagrantly violated a variety of regulatory and ethical guidelines to ensure its criminal acts could proceed apace.”
Lanier added that “Herrera did secure the necessary permits despite the fact that such action was itself a crime,” and described BP’s proceedings as “breathtaking acts of criminality.”
BP has denied breaking any laws while obtaining its air quality permits.