Originally posted by Juan Lozano - Houston Chronicle - March 12, 2009
HOUSTON — A federal judge on Thursday approved a highly criticized plea deal that fines BP PLC $50 million for its criminal role in a deadly 2005 blast at its refinery near Houston that killed 15 people.
The plea deal, which has a BP subsidiary pleading guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act, a felony, also sentences the oil giant to three years probation.
The deadly explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, also injured more than 170 people.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal's announcement during a brief court hearing came after the plea deal was first announced in October 2007. Its acceptance was delayed while the judge held hearings in which blast victims and their attorneys vigorously objected to the agreement as too low.
They also doubted that BP would meet its safety obligations at the refinery. They argued federal sentencing laws allowed the fine to be as high as $3.2 billion.
Eva Rowe, whose parents, James and Linda Rowe, were killed in the blast as they worked at the refinery, said Rosenthal's decision was "not right."
"I though the punishment would be more than $50 million. That's pocket change for BP," she said after the hearing.
Both prosecutors and BP defended the plea agreement as the harshest option available in assessing criminal punishment for the blast.
"While this plea and penalty will not bring back the lives of those 15 workers, or erase the pain suffered by all those who were injured, it demonstrates that the federal government takes seriously its mission to prosecute those who knowingly violate the nation's environmental laws," the Justice Department said in a statement.
During the probation period, BP will be required to continue complying with safety agreements from both federal and state regulators that were put in place after the blast.
BP spokesman Darren Beaudo said the oil company deeply regrets the harm caused by the explosion.
BP will continue to "reduce risk, increase plant integrity and ensure environmental compliance so we can prevent something like this from happening again," Beaudo said.
But Brent Coon, attorney for Rowe and other blast victims, predicted BP would violate its probation by having another deadly accident.
"Habitual criminals don't change their stripes," he said.
Rosenthal's decision came after a protracted process in which blast victims unsuccessfully took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plea deal between BP and the Department of Justice was first announced in October 2007.
It was part of an agreement by BP to pay $373 million to settle various criminal and civil charges related to the plant explosion, energy price-fixing and pipeline leaks in Alaska.
Rosenthal's decision came after BP entered its guilty plea in February 2008. But blast victims appealed, objecting to not being consulted on the plea deal under the Crime Victims' Rights Act.
The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in July 2008 denied a request from blast victims to delay a decision on the settlement, sending the case back to Rosenthal.
Last month, BP agreed to pay almost $180 million to settle pollution violations federal regulators found during inspections of the Texas City refinery after the deadly blast. This settlement was separate from the criminal case, prosecutors said.
The explosion at the plant occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons.
The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons were vented from the drum and ignited at the startup of the isomerization unit — a device that boosts the octane in gasoline. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn of the overfilled equipment did not work properly.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the explosion.