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BP Flouted US Safety Rules

By Jason Leopold
May 5, 2010

Editor’s Note: A common thread through recent disasters – the Wall Street financial collapse, the fatal West Virginia coal mine explosion and the huge oil spill from one of BP’s offshore rigs – has been a lack of effective government oversight.

Indeed, over the past three decades as Republicans and the Right expanded their power (often allied with pro-corporation Democrats), big companies have acted with growing confidence in putting profits before safety, as Jason Leopold notes in this guest article about other BP violations:

The troubles of oil giant BP are not limited to its Gulf of Mexico operations, where a deadly blast aboard a drilling rig two weeks ago ruptured an oil well 5,000 feet below the sea's surface and triggered a massive oil leak that is now the size of a small country.

The oil conglomerate is also facing serious charges from the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that it "willfully" failed to implement safety measures at its Texas City refinery, the third largest in the country, following an explosion that killed 15 employees and injured 170 others five years ago.

OSHA found BP to be in violation of more than 300 health and safety regulations and, in 2005, fined the company $21.4 million, at the time the largest in OSHA’s history. In 2007, BP paid a $50 million fine and pleaded guilty to a felony for not having written guidelines in place at the refinery and for exposing employees to toxic emissions.

BP was placed on three years’ probation and the Justice Department agreed not to pursue additional criminal charges against the company as long as BP agreed to undertake a series of OSHA-ordered corrective safety measures at the refinery. BP also settled with the victims' families for $1.6 billion.

Several investigations launched in the aftermath of the refinery explosion concluded that BP's aggressive cost-cutting efforts in the area of safety, the use of outdated refinery equipment and overworked employees contributed to the blast.
John Bresland, chairman of the independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), said the blast 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 [a truck that backfired] and exploded."

Bresland, whose organization spent two years probing the circumstances behind the explosion, said CSB's investigation "found organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation."

"Our investigation team turned up extensive evidence showing a catastrophe waiting to happen,”  Bresland said on March 24, the fifth anniversary of the refinery explosion. “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. "

Failure to Comply
Since the settlement, according to OSHA, BP has not only failed to comply with its terms but has knowingly committed hundreds of new violations that continue to endanger its refinery workers.

"When BP signed the OSHA settlement from the March 2005 explosion, it agreed to take comprehensive action to protect employees," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement last October. "Instead of living up to that commitment, BP has allowed hundreds of potential hazards to continue unabated."

"The fact that there are so many still outstanding life-threatening problems at this plant indicates that they still have a systemic safety problem in this refinery," added acting Assistant Labor Secretary for OSHA Jordan Barab.

OSHA then imposed a record $87 million fine against the company, surpassing the previous record – also against BP – in 2005.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not respond to questions as to whether BP's alleged failure to comply with its settlement agreement would expose the company to further criminal charges. However, last October, Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston, said the Justice Department "will take all appropriate actions to ensure the plea agreement is not violated."

Some of BP’s new violations have already resulted in additional fatalities at the refinery, according to OSHA.

On July 22, 2006, OSHA said a contractor was crushed between a "scissor lift and a pipe rack." On June 5, 2007, another contractor was electrocuted "on a light circuit in the [refinery's] process area." On Jan. 14, 2008, an employee was killed when the top head of a pressure vessel blew off. On Oct.  9, 2008, a contractor was hit by a front-end loader and died from his injuries.

BP has vehemently denied  OSHA’s charges and has formally contested the proposed penalties.

"We continue to believe we are in full compliance with the Settlement Agreement ... we strongly disagree with OSHA's conclusions," said Texas City Refinery Manager Keith Casey. "We believe our efforts at the Texas City refinery to improve process safety performance have been among the most strenuous and comprehensive that the refining industry has ever seen."

BP says it invested $1 billion on safety and operational improvements at the refinery and believed it had more time to fulfill its commitments under the settlement agreement, according to a letter that BP attorney Thomas Wilson sent to OSHA. BP may end up fighting the charges in federal court.

Still, as highlighted in a January 2007 report issued by a panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III, systemic issues related to BP’s process safety were not limited to its Texas City refinery, but rather were widespread.

In 2007, BP had entered into a settlement with OSHA over safety issues at the Husky refinery in Toledo, Ohio, a 50-50 joint venture between BP and Canadian-based Husky Energy, Inc.
During an inspection last September, OSHA found that BP was in compliance with the earlier agreement but discovered "numerous violations at the plant not previously covered" by the settlement.

In March, OSHA issued a new set of charges against BP in March for "willful" violations at Husky, "including 39 on a per-instance basis, and 20 alleged serious violations for exposing workers to a variety of hazards including failure to provide adequate pressure relief for process units," issues that appear to be identical to those that led to the Texas City explosion in 2005.

"OSHA has found that BP often ignored or severely delayed fixing known hazards in its refineries," Solis said. "There is no excuse for taking chances with people's lives. BP must fix the hazards now."

Also notable about the nearly two dozen alleged violations at Husky was that one matches allegations leveled against BP a year ago by a whistleblower who said the company had been operating its Gulf Coast drilling platform Atlantis without a majority of the necessary engineering and design documents, a violation of federal law.

Atlantis is the world's largest and deepest semi-submersible oil and natural gas platform, located about 200 miles south of New Orleans. The whistleblower said BP was risking a catastrophic oil spill even worse than the disaster now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and sank two weeks ago.

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