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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”