On Friday OSHA said it was issuing a record $87 million in fines against BP for both new safety concerns and ongoing disputes over the settlement agreement it reached with BP over the deadly 2005 blast at the Texas City refinery. It’s just the latest twist in the Texas City tragedy that the Chronicle has covered extensively over the past four-plus years.
Despite all our coverage, I was asked what felt like a new question on Friday from a BBC Radio producer as I prepared for a brief interview: Are unsafe refineries a reflection of Texas and Houston culture?
Is it a Texas thing? (U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board)
Certainly we’ve had plenty of huge accidents here, including the 1989 Phillips Petroleum refinery blast that killed 23 in Pasadena and the 1990 Arco accident in Channelview that killed 17. But there are few (if any) cities that have such a concentration of refineries and chemical plants. So where else are you going to have refinery accidents?
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has seven ongoing investigations, with two of them in Texas (one in Houston, one in Corpus Christi). But Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman for the CSB, said he’s not sure one could say with certainty that this is a particularly Houston-specific problem.
“We do a lot of cases in Houston but there are a lot of facilities there,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz notes that Contra Costa County in Northern California has done a good job of reducing fatalities and other accidents at the major industry facilities in its area in the past decade by adding another layer of inspections to those required by OSHA. The Contra Costa Times wrote about the 10th anniversary of the program last year.
OSHA officials made it clear on Friday what they believe the problem is, however: the safety culture at BP and BP Texas City in particular. There have been four deaths either at the plant or nearby as part of its operations in the 4 years since the blast, noted Jordan Barab, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for OSHA on Friday.
“The fact that there are still so many outstanding problems, life-threatening problems, at this plant indicates they still have a systemic safety problem in this refinery,” Barab said.