BP blames staff for deadly Texas City blast

By Anne Belli
Houston Chronicle Staff Writer

BP on Tuesday placed the lion’s share of the blame for the deadly blast at its Texas City refinery at the feet of low- and mid-level workers who it said were lax in following written company procedures during one of the most dangerous times in refinery operations.

Had the six operators and one supervisor assigned to the start-up of the refinery’s so-called isomerization unit been doing their jobs, the explosion would not have happened, 15 people would not have been killed and more than 170 would not have been injured, said Ross Pillari, president of BP Products North America.

“The mistakes made during the start-up of this unit were surprising and deeply disturbing,” Pillari said during a news conference in which BP released a 47-page interim report on its investigation.

Workers, who the company said were experienced and well-trained, ignored start-up checklists, failed to communicate with each other during critical shift changes and inexplicably decided not to sound an evacuation alarm when they had a full six minutes to do so after the pressure relief valves opened before the March 23 blast, officials said.

Even the unit’s supervisor had left the plant in the middle of the start-up, they said.

The start-up of a unit is considered one of the most dangerous times in the operations of a refinery.

“The core issue here is people not following procedures,” Pillari said.

Seated at a table with two other BP executives at Texas City’s Doyle Convention Center, Pillari said the company already has fired some workers and may fire others — from hourly workers to supervisors — but he declined to name them or give their specific titles.

Plant manager Don Parus has been placed on leave — not as a part of any disciplinary action but to participate full-time in the ongoing investigation — and he has been replaced by Colin Maclean, who has managed refineries in Australia, Scotland and Whiting, Ind., Pillari said.

The union’s response

Union officials, victims and attorneys representing dozens of injured workers or the families of the deceased, said Pillari made scapegoats of the low-level refinery workers while sidestepping management’s own responsibility.
“Blaming workers doesn’t solve the problem of unsafe conditions in that refinery,” said Gary Beevers, Region 6 director of the United Steelworkers union.

Glenn Alexander, whose wife, Lorena Cruz-Alexander, died in the explosion, said he also was dissatisfied with BP’s statements.

“I’m glad that they are admitting that it was their fault, but I am still very angry because it was a situation that could have been avoided,” said Alexander, also a refinery worker who watched helplessly and in horror as the construction trailer in which his wife was working was consumed in a fireball.

“The level that they are trying put blame on is too low. This is something that should be looked at higher up,” Alexander said.

Bill Hoyle, investigations manager with the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, said it will continue to search for the root causes of the accident, “including management systems issues, design flaws and other problems.”

The Deer Park man who was the board operator in the control room did not return repeated phone calls.

BP officials painted a picture of a careless group of workers who abandoned normal procedures while operating one of the most dangerous units at the refinery.

They said IN that trouble began early in the morning when isom unit workers who had begun the start-up of the raffinate splitter during the night shift failed to fully brief day-shift workers and the supervisor.

The splitter is used to produce chemicals used to boost the octane of gasoline.

As the start-up continued early that morning, highly flammable hydrocarbons flowed into the splitter much more quickly and were heated much faster than normal, said Pat Gower, BP vice president of refining.

What happened

As the level of the fluids rose from 7 feet to a staggering 140 feet, three pressure-relief valves activated, allowing the materials to begin flowing into a blowdown drum nearby.

After that filled, the materials then made their way up a vent stack, which overflowed. Liquids and vapors then flowed onto the plant grounds, where unsuspecting workers were driving vehicles, operating generators and doing other refinery work.

A yet-to-be-identified ignition source then caused the massive blast, Gower said.

He added that six minutes passed between the time the pressure relief valves opened and the explosion occurred, but none of the operators sounded the evacuation alarm.

No call to evacuate

“There was an opportunity to sound an emergency evacuation alarm so that people could get away, but they chose not to do it,” Gower said. “There were quite a few things we didn’t do right this day.”

Tim Holt, the BP senior executive who led the internal investigation, said the operators told investigators they had their hands full trying to correct the upset.

“Their answers tended to be that there were a lot of things going on in that six-minute period,” Holt said.

The company’s report says that some workers who saw the liquid and vapors flowing from the stack were able to save their lives by running for cover.

Holt said that alarms did indeed sound in the control room, but that there was not a “flood of alarms.”

Gower said that although just one operator is assigned to the control room, which oversees the isom unit as well as two others, the company is not considering adding more.

“Staffing was actually quite heavy,” he said.

Trailer’s proximity at issue

Alexander and others still question why the trailer, where most of the dead were located, was allowed to be parked within 150 feet of the isom unit when the company’s own guidelines suggest it should not.

Pillari said a hazard review found that it was safe to place the doomed trailer and others so close to the unit and that they had been there for many years. Management did not “recognize the possibility that multiple failures by operations personnel” would cause such an accident.

Likewise, Pillari defended the company’s decision to continue to use a “blowdown stack” to contain overflow of flammable liquids and vapors from the isom unit.

The refinery unit exploded after flammable liquid and vapors overflowed out of the stack and gathered onto the ground, where they were ignited.

Federal investigators, safety experts and others have said that had the stack been equipped with a flare, the materials likely would have been safely burned away and the resulting explosion could have been avoided.

Pillari said that while the company contemplated implementing a flare, and had opportunities to do so as part of other construction projects in 1995 and 2002, it decided not to do so. But he added that BP did not think the unit was unsafe and management again did not predict such lax abandonment of company procedures.

“Because the level of explosion risk associated with this operation was not fully recognized, no action was taken to change the configuration,” he said.

Culpability questioned

Rob Ammons, an attorney representing dozens of injured workers, said Pillari’s statements do not let the company off the hook.

“It is good that the company has stated that they will accept responsibility but it appears they are only willing to do that on a very low level,” he said. “Their own report suggests that decisions were made at a corporate level which were a cause of this explosion and needless tragedy … I’m disappointed that they have not admitted the obvious concerning the flare system. My investigation leads me to believe it just wasn’t in their budget.”

Another lawyer representing victims agreed.

“I think their fault is so obvious they can’t deny it, but they’re trying to blame low-level employees,” said David Perry.

Pillari said BP has already begun widespread changes in the wake of the explosion. It is prohibiting the occupancy of trailers within 500 feet or more of blowdown stacks and flares, and it is removing all non-essential workers from process areas, he said.

It also is equipping its blowdown stacks at its refineries in Texas City and Whiting, Ind., with flares or routing them to safer, so-called closed systems. And the company has commissioned a third party to conduct a process review of all operations in Texas City, Pillari said.

As for the victims and their families, Pillari said BP has begun settlement talks with their attorneys in attempts to fairly compensate them for their losses.

“We regret that our mistakes have caused so much suffering,” he said.

Staff writer Terri Langford contributed this report.

anne.belli@chron.com

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