Five years ago today, at about 1:20 p.m., a series of explosions rocked the BP Texas City refinery during the restart of a hydrocarbon isomerization unit.
Fifteen workers were killed and 170 others were injured. Many of the victims were working in or around work trailers located near an atmospheric vent stack. The explosions occurred when a distillation tower flooded with hydrocarbons and was over- pressurized, causing a geyser-like release from the vent stack. The hydrocarbons found an ignition source and exploded.
I urge everyone in the oil refining industry to take a moment today and think about that tragic loss of life and the severity of so many injuries which continue to afflict workers five 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. 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 final investigation report issued two years after the accident, we found organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation. 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.
I urge 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 “Is any of this happening at my facility?” I also recommend taking a lunch hour to view with your colleagues the CSB Safety Video "Anatomy of a Disaster", an extensive examination – with computer animation – of the factors that caused the BP tragedy.
Refinery accidents at other companies continue to occur with dismaying frequency. 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.
BP notes it has spent over one billion dollars repairing and improving the Texas City refinery’s equipment and operations. Media reports indicate a like amount has gone to settle lawsuits filed after the accident. This gives new meaning to the old adage, “If you think safety is expensive, wait until you have an accident.”
When will we know whether the tragedy of 2005 has resulted in greater safety at BP and other companies’ refineries? Only when we can look back over the passing of a significant number of years without major accidents, deaths, or injuries. In the meantime, only the highest commitment to running down the even smallest of problems and upsets will assure the prevention of so-called low probability, high-consequence events like the tragedy that took so many lives in Texas City five years ago today.