Fifth Anniversary of Fatal BP Explosion Remembered

March 23, 2010
On March 23, 2005, tragedy struck BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery when a cloud of hydrocarbon vapor exploded, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 180 others. Perhaps the real tragedy is that federal investigators believe that the accident – like so many other workplace accidents – was entirely avoidable.

In 2005, following an investigation, OSHA hit BP with what was, at that time, the largest fine ever: $21 million. A February 2007 internal BP report commissioned by top BP brass concluded that four members of management should be held accountable for the blast.

OSHA, however, didn’t let up on the company and in October 2009, the agency announced it was fining BP Products North America Inc. again, this time for $87.4 million, “for the company's failure to correct potential hazards faced by employees.”

"When BP signed the OSHA settlement from the March 2005 explosion, it agreed to take comprehensive action to protect employees. Instead of living up to that commitment, BP has allowed hundreds of potential hazards to continue unabated," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis last year. "Fifteen people lost their lives as a result of the 2005 tragedy, and 170 others were injured. An $87 million fine won't restore those lives, but we can't let this happen again. Workplace safety is more than a slogan. It's the law. The U.S. Department of Labor will not tolerate the preventable exposure of workers to hazardous conditions."

Victims of the blast and their family members sued the company, and in 2007, BP acknowledged it had set aside $1.6 billion to cover compensation claims related to the blast.

Today, John Bresland, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, urged everyone in the oil refining industry to take a moment and think about that tragic loss of life and the severity of so many injuries that continue to afflict workers 5 years later.

“Today would be an appropriate time for company management to pause and personally pledge to do everything in their power to prevent this kind of catastrophic accident from happening at their refineries,” said Bresland, adding, “And in my view, it would also be appropriate for BP to recommit to safety in a way that builds on the steps it has taken in the aftermath of the Texas City tragedy.”

In the CSB’s 335-page, final investigation report issued 2 years after the accident, the agency found organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corp. It was the most comprehensive and detailed investigation the CSB has ever done.

“Our investigation team turned up extensive evidence showing a catastrophe waiting to happen: that cost-cutting had affected safety programs and critical maintenance; production pressures resulted in costly mistakes made by workers likely fatigued by working long hours; internal audits and safety studies brought problems to the attention of BP’s board in London, but they were not sufficiently acted upon. Yet, the company was proud of its record on personnel safety,” said Bresland.

He urged everyone involved in operations and safety programs at refineries to take time to visit the CSB’s BP investigation web page, review the key findings in the report and ask themselves: “Is any of this happening at my facility?”

“Refinery accidents at other companies continue to occur with dismaying frequency,” said Bresland. “These have also taken lives, disrupted communities and threatened the nation’s flow of gasoline and other refined oil products. These accidents will only stop when every refinery has made the financial and human commitment to sound process safety management.”

Noting that BP claims it has spent over $1 billion repairing and improving the Texas City refinery’s equipment and operations, and that media reports indicate a similar amount has been paid out in settlements to victims, Bresland said, “This gives new meaning to the old adage, ‘If you think safety is expensive, wait until you have an accident.’”

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