BP explosion details still surprising

The accident that killed 15 and injured as many as 180 at BP’s Texas City refinery in March 2005 has been analyzed many times over (Chronicle’s ongoing coverage is here), so there shouldn’t be a whole lot the industry doesn’t know about the incident by now.

8 Aftermath of March 2005 explosion

But it was still surprising to hear some of the details from a presentation made yesterday at the International Conference of the Center for Chemical Process Safety in Houston. This is the event we referred to today in this story, where the Chemical Safety Board officials criticized an American Petroleum Institute draft of trailer citing standards.
CSB investigator Don Holmstrom hit the highlights from the agency’s report on the accident, but a few of the small details were interesting, such as the role operator fatigue may have played.
Some of the operators involved in the start-up of the unit that exploded had worked 12-hour shifts for 29 consecutive days leading up to the accident, he said. While there is no doubt putting in such long hours comes with a good financial incentive the downside can be on performance, Holmstrom said. For instance, operators misinterpreted the information on equipment gauges just 6 minutes prior to the explosion.
He also noted that an important piece of equipment was miscalibrated, saying the specific gravity of the material being processed was .8, versus the actual specific gravity of .55. Holmstrom said that incorrect setting was most likely made using data sheets that hadn’t been updated since 1975, when the equipment was part of a different process at the plant.
BP has gone to great lengths to fix the problems, Holmstrom said. The refinery has gone through close to $1 billion in upgrades, the safety training staff has been expanded and the company is recreating its culture at refineries to improve process safety. But any incident at the Texas City plant still gets a lot of scrutiny (from us and others). We wrote about the most recent safety-related incident at the plant last week here, but so far a clear picture of what happened has not developed. A worker involved in the incident has already filed a lawsuit seeking information.