BP settles most remaining Texas City OSHA violations for $13 million

By L.M. Sixel and Emily Pickrell
Houston Chronicle Staff Writers

BP agreed to pay $13 million to resolve most of its outstanding safety citations stemming from a post-explosion inspection in 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced today.

The announcement, which means that BP has agreed to $84 million in fines to the federal agency since the 2005 explosion which killed 15 workers and injured 170 more, had been anticipated for more than a year. BP has been trying to sell the refinery and has been eager to resolve the lingering issue of the outstanding citations.

The agreement settles 409 of the 439 citations that the agency leveled against BP following the 2009 follow-up inspection. At that time, BP agreed to pay $50.6 million in fines to resolve other citations.

BP, however, was facing more than $30 million in fines for the 439 citations. In Thursday’s agreement, most of the citations were either withdrawn, or re-classified as serious, repeat and unclassified. Only 57 remained classified as willful citations, according to the OSHA announcement.

“The general enforcement takeaway is that enforcement works,” said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “It definitely got BP’s attention. Their behavior has significantly improved. We felt in 2009 that BP was behind the curve in terms of refinery safety, but that they are making sincere efforts to improve and have improved. They have said they would like to become a leader in process safety.”

He added that OSHA no longer sees any imminent threats to safety at the refinery.

“We’ve been very satisfied by the way BP has responded,” he said. He pointed to the installation of a sophisticated safety instrument system that the company is planning to add to other facilities.

The remaining citations are expected to be resolved later this year.

Officials said the safety agency and BP are still disputing 30 citations — which have been reclassified into 22 citations – dealing with the complicated operations of pressure release valves. The Department of Labor requires refineries to comply with the best engineering practices in terms of maintaining these valves.

BP disputes the interpretation of those practices, and the safety agency has said litigation is possible to resolve that dispute.

OSHA has been routinely criticized for agreeing to dismiss or downgrade citations in its quest to reach settlements with health and safety violators. However under current law, OSHA can’t require a company to fix a problem until the case is closed, said Barab, in an interview after the press conference.

It can take a very long time for a company to contest its citations, he said, and meanwhile, workers continue to be exposed to hazards.

“It didn’t seem worth it for a little more money to send it to court or get delayed,” he said.

“Our goal is to get the problems fixed,” said Barab, and to send the message the the industry about fixing health and safety problems.

“BP is committed to workplace safety. A strong relationship with OSHA is part of that commitment,” said Iain Conn, BP’s global head of Refining & Marketing, in a statement. “We respect OSHA and have worked to address their concerns in this latest agreement. Our aim is to be a leader in process safety and we look forward to continuing our cooperation with OSHA to create an even safer workplace in BP and in our industry as a whole.”

BP said in the statement that it has made major improvements in safety and environmental compliance at the Texas City Refinery. The company spent more than $1 billion on safety and infrastructure improvements at the refinery between 2005 and 2009 and allocated another $500 million for activities specified in its 2010 settlement agreement with OSHA. Said BP: The work it performed for the 2010 agreement has been verified by independent experts as well as OSHA to ensure consistent implementation and compliance with standards.

A spokeswoman for the United SteelWorkers Union,which represents the BP employees, said the union hadn’t seen the settlement but believes BP is making progress on settling the health and safety problems OSHA cited.

“Hopefully the rest of the industry will learn from BP’s mistakes and examine their own facilities to see if they have similar problems,” said the spokeswoman,  Lynne Hancock.

Brent Coon, an attorney who represented several plaintiffs and employees in the Texas City accident, was critical of the OSHA settlement, noting that the 2009 citations were the result of BP failing to honor the agreement it made with OSHA in 2007.

“The failure to properly monitor such relief systems in the past have contributed to a number of incidents in that facility, most notably the explosion in March of 2005 which killed 15 people,” Coon said in a written statement. “While the additional fines for those failures help add pressure to the management of BP to speed up their safety improvements and maintenance practices, the failure to prosecute management personnel individually has allowed the company to act with less haste than it would have otherwise.”

The oil company has been trying to sell the Texas City plant, which has the capacity of over 400,000 barrels-per-day, by the end of this year, but the alleged violations have hampered the company’s ability to sell the plant.

BP has paid more than $2 billion to settle lawsuits stemming from the blast and paid a $21.3 million fine to OSHA in the months after the blast.

Check out our past stories about the BP Texas City blast:

Deadly blast rocks Texas City
BP blames staff for deadly Texas City blast
BP settlement money helps with safety training
Loren Steffy: 5 years after blast, BP still trying to heal
Cost cutting causes worry about refinery safety

OSHA BP Settlement