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Events mark fatal Texas City refinery explosions

March 24, 2010, 9:44 am

Originally posted by TJ Aulds - Galveston Daily News - March 23, 2010

TEXAS CITY, Texas — Five years after a series of explosions rocked BP’s Texas City refinery, survivors and family members of those killed will come together in Houston not only to reflect on the fatal blasts but also to mark the progress made in petrochemical plant safety across the country as a result of the lessons learned.

Meanwhile, at the refinery where the explosions killed 15 contractor workers and injured more than 200 others, employees will mark the occasion with a moment of silence at the time the blasts happened.

It was at about 1:20 p.m. on March 23, 2005, that an overflow of highly flammable material shot from a sub-unit at BP Texas City’s isomerization unit and was ignited by a truck’s idling diesel engine. That set off a cascade of explosions that leveled nearby office trailers and changed safety operations not just at BP but at similar facilities across the nation.

Changes have taken place at BP, but many doubt its safety culture — found in every federal, state and even its own internal investigation as wanting — has changed significantly. Even those who battled the company about its safety culture note there have been positive changes industrywide.

"The industry has moved toward an increased appreciation for process safety," attorney Brent Coon said.

Coon, who represented many of those injured in the 2005 blasts, including Eva Rowe, whose mother and father, James and Linda Rowe, were killed in the explosion, said: "In many cases, it was not done as aggressively as it should have. But that’s because of the expenses related to upgrading equipment."

Keith Casey, who took over managing the refinery just as a $1 billion retooling of the facility was getting under way, points to new approaches to safety as evidence it won’t make the same mistakes again. He said the commitment to take lessons learned and increase process safety standards was now a part of life at the refinery.

"This anniversary is a time for reflection and remembrance, but not a single day goes by when we don’t think about the tragic events of the day and rededicate ourselves to being an industry leader in process safety," Casey said.

"We deeply regret what occurred five years ago and have since made real progress in our systematic approach to process safety and in improving the culture of our organization to see that it never happens again."

Company officials said that, in addition to the $1 billion overhaul to upgrade and modernize the 76-year-old refinery, BP has reduced its risk profile materially to lessen the likelihood of a similar blast. The company points to reduced chemical emissions and a declining recordable injury rate as evidence the safety culture within the facility is far better than it was five years ago.

Coon is hosting today’s look back, but noted it also includes a look forward with updates on educational safety programs, scholarships and burn treatment programs that received millions in funding from Rowe’s settlement with BP.

BP still is facing the fallout from the blasts, however. In October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said BP had failed to meet its obligations of improving safety systems within the refinery that it agreed to fix when the federal regulator slapped the company with a $21 million fine related to the 2005 explosions.

OSHA proposed a new round of fines totaling $87 million and noted what it claims were 439 new "willful" violations involving pressure-release systems on units at the refinery.

The company has contested OSHA’s latest action and has asked for a review panel to take a look at the findings.


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