By Harvey Rice
GALVESTON — Tons of toxic gases spewed from a tower at BP’s Texas City refinery for more than 40 days in 2010 without warning to the public. This week four of more than 48,000 residents who sued BP claiming health damage from the release will be the first to have their day in court.
They are asking a jury to give each of them up to $200,000 and to punish BP by awarding 10 percent of its estimated $147 billion net worth. The punitive damages would be given to charity, said attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the four Galveston County residents.
The lawsuit alleges that BP could have shut down a unit that caused the release but refused to do so because it would have cost $20 million in lost revenue.
Jury selection began Monday in the trial, which is expected to set the tone for many trials to follow.
“These test cases are all bellwethers,” Buzbee said. “Whatever decision is made by the jury will not be binding on any clients but these, but it will give a strong indication of the … value of the cases.”
The mixture of gases escaped through a flare, a tower designed to burn away pollutants released into the air, between April 6 and May 22, 2010. BP reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that 538,000 pounds of chemicals were released, but the lawsuit contends the actual figure is in the millions of pounds and that the release lasted five days longer than reported. The lawsuit alleges that BP knew the flare was unable to burn away the pollutants as designed.
BP said in a statement that there was no evidence the release caused harm.
“Neither the community air-monitoring network nor the BP fence-line monitors showed elevated readings during April and May 2010 and we do not believe that any negative health impacts resulted from flaring at BP’s Texas city refinery during this period,” the statement said.
Buzbee said the same monitoring system failed to detect 193 illegal releases in the years leading up to the BP release.
The monitors that BP referred to in its statement are the wrong kind, and placed in the wrong position, to detect emissions from the plant, according to an unrelated complaint to the Commission on Environmental Quality by the environmental group Air Alliance Houston. Adrian Shelley, the organization’s executive director, said the expert who discovered the problems with the monitors will testify for the plaintiffs.
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Buzbee’s four clients are alleging that the emissions made them temporarily ill, which limits the awards they can seek. “None of these people, for now, are permanently disabled,” he said.
The lawsuit is the latest stemming from a string of mishaps at the accident-plagued plant, purchased last year by Marathon Petroleum Corp. BP settled a lawsuit by the Texas attorney general by paying $50 million for air-pollution violations from 2005 to 2011, including the 2010 release that led to the case now being tried in Galveston.
The company paid a $2.1 billion settlement to settle lawsuits by 3,000 people following a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers.
In April Buzbee filed a $1 billion lawsuit on behalf of 474 Galveston County residents who claim their health was damaged in a 2011 release of toxic gases that lasted several weeks.
The 2010 release in Texas City occurred while BP was trying to halt release of oil from its Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana coast, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The company faces thousands of damage and injury claims from the spill and has paid more than $30 million in clean-up costs, fines and damages.
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