Ecocentric

BP’s Safety Problems Began Long Before the Oil Spill

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As the oil spill has worsened, reporters have dug into BP’s company policies, demonstrating that the energy company often put profits well before safety throughout many parts of its operations. Exhibit A in that case was always a 2005 fire in BP’s creaking Texas City refinery, which killed 15 people—four more than died in the Deepwater Horizon accident. But a new investigation by Ryan Knutson at ProPublica shows in excruciating detail just how careless BP was in the years leading up to the Texas City fire—and why that matters as the company struggles to clean up the Gulf spill:

The Texas City disaster has taken on new relevance today, because the investigations that were done in its aftermath reveal so much about the company that is responsible for what’s happening now in the Gulf. Government probes, court filings and BP’s own confidential investigations paint a picture of a company that ignored repeated warnings about the plant’s deteriorating condition and instead remained focused on minimizing costs and maximizing profits. According to a safety audit BP conducted just before the 2005 blast, many of the plant’s more than 2,000 employees arrived at work each day with an “exceptional degree of fear of catastrophic incidents.”

As if that deadly—and avoidable—accident wasn’t enough, Knutson found that BP’s Texas City refinery had a major release of toxic chemicals into the air in the weeks just before the Deepwater Horizon accident.

The company now estimates that 538,000 pounds of chemicals escaped from the refinery while it was replacing the equipment. These included 17,000 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen; 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to respiratory problems; and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide.

It is unclear whether the pollutants harmed the health of Texas City residents, but the amount of chemicals far exceeds the limits set by Texas and other states.

When you exceed the air pollution limits of Texas—which has some of the weakest environmental laws on the books—you’re really doing something wrong. And Knutson found that the release happened in part because BP decided to keep producing gasoline while it attempted to repair a key piece of machinery at the refinery.

And if that’s not enough, a freelance photographer taking photos for ProPublica at Texas City was briefly detained by local police, a BP representative and a man who said he was from the Department of Homeland Security on Friday while working on these stories. The photographer was released after police took his date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information—and after they reviewed the photos he had taken Friday, even though the pictures were just of the exterior of the Texas City facility, and were taken from public property.

Now, in the wake of 9/11, security has been tightened over the nation’s refineries, as well they it be. But that’s no excuse for police and a federal official to detain a photographer—and allow an official from a private company to review his photographs. That is something I would expect to happen in a country like Russia—and I know, because I had that happen to me on a reporting trip there in 2007. That it would happen in the U.S. is shameful—and another sign that government officials seem to be more interested in protecting BP than the people of this country.

Although maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given the enormous economic influence BP wields in sections of this country. One of the saddest parts of Knutson’s story comes when he speaks to Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle, and it quickly becomes apparent that such accidents are considered a part of doing business:

Despite the deaths and the chemical releases, most Texas City residents remain loyal to the company. BP has donated millions of dollars to a community center, parks and the local high school, and people here know their town of 44,000 would wither if the refinery was closed. BP is not only the town’s biggest employer; it’s also its best-paying, offering starting salaries of $62,000.

“Nobody wants somebody dying on their watch,” said Mayor Matt Doyle, a Texas City native whose father also served as mayor. Doyle led the town through the 2005 explosion, and his face grows tense when he talks about it. But bring up BP and the conversation quickly focuses on “vital employment.”

In Texas City, despite the blood on its hands, BP still runs the show. So it is in the Gulf, even as the oil still bleeds.

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