In the days, months and first few years following the fatal explosions at BP’s Texas City refinery, investigators, regulators, oil industry officials and labor activists promised sweeping changes within the refining industry.

Ten years later?

“I think it is sad to report that not enough appears to have been learned and the problem persists,” said Don Holmstrom, director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s Western Regional Office. “It is not just a BP problem. Although the incident occurred at (BP’s) Texas City refinery, there is an industry problem.”

Holmstrom was the CSB’s lead investigator during the agency’s two-year investigation of the cascade of blasts in Texas City that killed 15 people and injured 170.

“Oil refineries account for more incidents than any other industrial group,” Holmstrom said as he returned from investigating last month’s explosion at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, Calif. “The perception has been that BP was the problem. The reality is that it is an industry problem. These are not outlier companies.”

Holmstrom said often he and other CSB investigators find that refiners will be compliant with safety regulations, but “only at the most minimal levels.”

“There is an effort to just barely meet what is required when it comes to safety,” he said. “It speaks to one degree that (the CSB) recommendations have yet to be fully implemented.”

One of those recommendations was to remove trailers and other temporary structures from areas near process units. Many of those killed or seriously injured in the 2005 explosions were in or around trailers.

“We still see trailers out at petrochemical sites,” said Daniel Horowitz, the CSB’s former managing director who is now the agency’s special counsel on the investigation into the BP Gulf Oil Spill. “We’ve been to explosions since Texas City where similar structures were damaged.”

Fatalities continue

Following the BP Texas City explosions the CSB recommended that Occupational Safety and Health Administration increase its inspections. OSHA agreed, never got the funding to get enough inspectors into the field, Horowitz said.

Tracking incidents that resulted in injuries or deaths is difficult.

It is estimated that between 2005 and 2008, 29 people were killed while working at an oil refinery. Fifteen of those were during the March 23 explosions at the BP Texas City refinery and three more killed during other incidents at the same refinery.

In 2009, though, OSHA began gathering weekly fatality and catastrophe reports. Those reports are readily available for review online.

A Daily News review of those reports shows that 12 people were killed in oil refinery incidents between 2009 and his past January.

Among those killed was Tommy D. Manis, who died in an April 2009 explosion at Valero’s Texas City refinery.

Six workers were killed in a fire at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., in April 2010.

While not at an oil refinery, four workers were killed at DuPont’s chemical plant in La Porte in November.

Those numbers could be higher because often contract workers are listed in the OSHA records under different classifications based on the type of work they are performing.

Holmstrom said all of the incidents since BP Texas City have one common thread.

“They were all preventable,” he said. “There has not been one investigation we’ve done that we found the incidents were unavoidable.”

No change

Attorney Brent Coon is more blunt when asked what has changed since the 2005 explosions in Texas City.

“Nothing has changed,” he said.

Coon represented Eva Rowe, whose parents James and Linda Rowe were killed in the blasts at BP Texas City. Part of the settlement with BP required the company to make public thousands of documents related to the explosions.

Coon also represented Manis’ family after the 2009 Valero explosion in Texas City.

“I had hoped that after all the media coverage of BP Texas City and getting all those documents into the public domain we would affect change,” he said. “For a short while there was some change, but overall the culture remains the same.”

Coon and Rowe pushed for legislation that would force process safety to become a fixture across the industry. Instead, Coon said, legislators clamped down on lawsuits.

“There is a perception that oil refineries are a dangerous place to work and that death is just an acceptable risk when you go to work,” Coon said. “What we know and what all these investigations have shown is that’s not true. These plants still run units to failure and are reactive and not proactive.”

Coon said it’s not just the companies to blame.

“People in these communities are afraid to speak out,” he said. “They worry what the companies will do if they complain and insist they run safely. Because those plants mean jobs, they mean a lot to the economy.

“They see these incidents as happening behind some curtain. That the fence (around a refinery) is a magical fence and they are safe.”

Outlier

Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represented 165 clients after the BP explosion, said as an industry lessons were learned. It was BP that failed to change its culture.

“I think the industry learned a lot,” Buzbee said. “I know from my involvement in other refinery accidents that the BP 2005 explosion was studied by its competitors and those in the industry in an effort to learn from the disaster.”

In several BP-related court cases since, Buzbee referred to BP as an outlier within the industry.

In 2008 and 2009, Buzbee had two more BP-related death cases and also represented 18 injured oil rig workers after 15 people were killed in the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion.

He also represented thousands of people who sued BP after a 40-day emissions event. While twice juries have found no one was injured by those releases, those same juries found BP negligent for allowing the chemical releases in the first place.

“The problem will always be topside pressure for production,” Buzbee said. “It takes a well-trained workforce, with discipline, to resist that pressure. When production is put above safety, people die. BP demonstrated that it was willing to put production (profit) ahead of safety.

“Most companies won’t do that.”

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(6) comments

Dorothy Holt

So, T.J., in complete disclosure, is the U.S. Chemical Board a Government Agency comprised of people appointed by politicians? Do these folks need to keep the public alarmed in order to keep their jobs pertinent to public and workplace safety? I thought OSHA (not a small town in Wisconsin) was supposed to do that. [sad]

Jim Forsythe

They work with OSHA ,TECQ and others. Each plays a part.

Current CSB Board Members: Board Member Manuel "Manny" Ehrlich, Board Member Mark Griffon, Board Member Rick Engler and Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is composed of five members who are appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Board members serve fixed terms of five years. The Board Chairman serves as the Chief Executive Officer and is responsible for agency administration, while the full Board is responsible for major budgeting decisions, strategic planning and direction, general agency oversight, and approval of investigation reports and studies.

The Clean Air Act provisions creating the Board require that Board members be appointed on the basis of technical qualification, professional standing, and demonstrated knowledge in the fields of accident reconstruction, safety engineering, human factors, toxicology, or air pollution regulations. Board members may participate in accident investigations. All investigation report findings, determinations of root cause, and safety recommendations must be approved by the Board as a whole.

Board members serve as principal spokespeople at accident sites and conduct community meetings, hearings, and boards of inquiry during the course of accident investigations. The day-to-day conduct of investigations and the preparation of draft reports is largely delegated to the Board's professional staff, which includes engineers, safety specialists, and attorneys.

Following Board approval of accident investigation reports, members play significant roles in advocating the adoption of recommendations by industry, labor, government agencies, and other organizations. Board members regularly participate in conferences, committees, and safety forums and meet with leaders of other federal agencies. Board members also contribute written works to scholarly journals and trade publications and present papers at professional meetings and other venues

Dorothy Holt

They are also the government which is my main point. Industry does not want a disaster. Per your post, there is excessive government which adds to the cost of everything we buy plus we have to pay the salary of those who are supposed to make everything better. A little bit of government is OK.....way too much is not OK.

Jim Forsythe

which groups would you do away with ?
I do not want to go back to a OASH rate of 8 or 9 like we use to have.
The industry as a whole did not do a good job . Did you ever work on a unit that had a death? How many friends have you lost to bad things that have happen at your unit? I do not want to go back to that. Have you gone to the burn unit to visit them?

George Croix

A bit of fairness and at least a smidgen of balance......as the issue is hardly one sided when veracity and trust are concerned...

Ten years later, the same liars and scoundrels who made 'legal claims', as one interesting way of describing dishonesty was made, against BP after the Isom explosion can still be heard bragging about their windgall, despite ZERO actual personal harm to themselves.
If anything, they've multiplied by a factor of ten, as the original 4 thousand, give or take, more than the less than 200 folks actually killed or injured morphed into over 40,000 'harmed by benzene' opportunists, or 'legal' claimants as might be said.......

Ten years later, and 20 plus on top of that, any attempts to build new, state of the art refineries, are still fought tooth and nail by the same type of people who drive or fly to their protests against fossil fuels. It's become almost impossible to tell the true believers from the truly stupid....but, for sure, the area in between is populated by a range from the clueless to the mendacious, along with the disconnected from reality. It's the functional equivalent of arguing against power brakes and seat belts. Ya gotta wonder at a thought process that thinks it's dandy to poor BILLIONS of taxpayer dollars into failed 'green energy', yet scream like a gutshot eagle when private industry wants to invest money in modernization and improvement.

Anyway, by no means is industry totally innocent, but by no means are they the personification of evil, either......one size fits all, never does.....and too many of the most strident voices against them have their own pocketbooks first in mind....

George Croix

Windgall?

Windfall....

Close enough....

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