CSB Video Provides Details of BP Texas City Blast

Marking the third anniversary of the BP Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers and injured approximately 180 others, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released a video that details the causes of the explosion and what should be learned from the tragedy.

The start of 56-minute video, “Anatomy of a Disaster,” gives the viewer a graphic display of the explosion's aftermath, with images of “dark, thick, smoke” billowing from the plant and with emergency response teams fighting to quell the flames.

“This investigation was the largest and most comprehensive investigation in the history of the Chemical Safety Board,” said Lead Investigator Don Holmstrom in the video.

“Anatomy of a Tragedy” recreates the events that lead up to the March 23 incident with a 9-minute 3-D computer animation. Also included in the video are sections describing BP's safety culture, the human factor safety issues that contributed to the accident and the importance of safe equipment design and trailer siting to remove trailers from hazardous areas.

The video also features interviews with key members of the CSB investigative team, who completed the 341-page public report on the causes of the accident.

"We hope the lessons from this accident will be studied for years throughout the world's petrochemical industry," said CSB Chairman John S. Bresland, who accompanied the investigative team to the accident site in March 2005. "The safety video we are releasing is critical to ensuring that the lessons from this tragedy are readily accessible to businesses and organizations around the world."

What Happened?

The explosions occurred at the plant’s isomerization unit, which boosts octane levels in gasoline. During its startup, operators pumped flammable liquid hydrocarbon into the raffinate splitter tower without allowing any liquid to drain from the bottom of the tower into storage tanks, which was contrary to startup procedures.

The liquid overflowed into piping off the top of the tower, triggering emergency relief valves. The emergency valves channeled liquid hydrocarbon into the blowdown drum at the other end of the isomerization unit, creating a vapor cloud that spread rapidly through the area.

A nearby diesel pickup truck ignited the vapor, initiating a series of explosions and fires that swept through the unit and the surrounding area.

In addition to the deadly series of events, the plant’s day supervisor was absent after leaving to tend to a family emergency. Only one worker was left to oversee three refinery units without a qualified supervisor.

When examining the overall cause of the accident, CSB determined that the BP Texas City explosion was a result of “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels in the company.”

“We found that BP, for many years, had overlooked the warning signs of a possible catastrophic accident,” said CSB Board Member William Wright.

Experts Chime In

Outside safety experts appear in the video to discuss their views of the long-term significance of the accident in Texas City. Professor Trevor Kletz of Texas A&M University pointed out that many times, companies put safety on the back burner because of cost concerns.

“There is an old saying that if you think safety is expensive, try an accident,” he said during the video. “They cost a lot of money, not only in damages to the plant and in injury claims for workers, but also in the loss of the company's reputation.”

Glenn Erwin, a safety specialist with the United Steelworkers, said his fear was that some of the other U.S. refineries may fall under the “that couldn't happen to me” frame of mine. “The ones that feel that could happen are the ones that are set up to have [accidents] happen there.”

Since the 2005 accident, BP has spent billions of dollars upgrading its U.S. refineries, settling lawsuits and trying to restore its reputation. But three subsequent accidents at the Texas City refinery have put BP safety efforts into question.

“Anatomy of a Disaster: Explosion at BP Texas City Refinery” can be seen in its entirety on CSB's website at http://www.safetyvideos.gov.

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