June 17, 2008
By Brad Hem
2008 Houston Chronicle
GALVESTON — An air pollution expert testifying on behalf of 10 workers suing BP for injuries they blame on the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion said the oil company deceived regulators about the existence of outmoded equipment.
BP failed to report the refinery's use of a blowdown drum and stack to release flammable and toxic hydrocarbons into the air, said Jim Tarr, president of California-based Stone Lions Environmental Corp., a private consulting firm.
"It's my opinion that that failure was intentional," Tarr testified Tuesday in the latest trial related to the March 2005 blast that killed 15 people and injured scores more.
When the refinery exploded, the blowdown stack overfilled, spewing flammable hydrocarbons out the top. The heavier-than-air material fell to ground level and ignited.
The preferred disposal method is to burn such gases off with flares rather than vent them through blowdown stacks.
Tarr said BP knew the blowdown system existed, failed to include it in permit applications and later failed to correct permit applications that omitted it. His testimony countered previous statements by Ruben Herrera, a BP engineer who previously worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and reviewed permits for BP.
The give-and-take earlier Tuesday between Herrera and plaintiffs' lawyers was often contentious.
At one point, Herrera refused to say information BP provided to the commission was false.
"It's incorrect," Herrera said.
"Isn't that the same as false?" plaintiffs' attorney Lance Lubel said.
Herrera stuck with "incorrect."
In five years at BP, Herrera said he has never seen anyone at the company intentionally try to deceive regulators.
"I don't agree with a lot of things he said," Tarr said of Herrera's testimony.
Now in its fourth week, the trial has gone further than any previous civil suit related to the blast. BP has spent a reported $2.1 billion to settle the vast majority of about 4,000 claims from the incident. Two previous trials started but were settled after two weeks of testimony.
BP has admitted responsibility for the explosion but challenges the extent of injuries claimed by the 10 plaintiffs who were working nearby.
The company is also challenging the $950 million in damages sought.