Jury absolves BP in gas leak trial

By Harvey Rice
Houston Chronicle

GALVESTON – A massive release of noxious gas from a former BP refinery in Texas City caused no harm or nuisance to three people who lived nearby, a Galveston County jury said Thursday.

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for about two days and three hours before absolving BP of any wrongdoing in a 2010 release of toxic gases that continued for at least 40 days.

The verdict, which came after a month-long trial, is a test case that sets the tone for an estimated 48,000 other claims brought by residents near the plant in scores of other lawsuits.

“Today’s verdict affirms BP’s view that no one suffered any injury as a result of the flaring of the BP Ultracracker flare during April and May 2010,” BP spokesman Scott Dean said. “Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this case and this important jury verdict, the company will immediately begin to prepare for any additional proceedings involving other plaintiffs.”

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Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the three residents who said they were harmed by the release, said he was surprised by the verdict. “But I respect juries,” Buzbee said. “This was only the first one of the test cases. We learned some things. We will gear up and try another one in a couple of months.”

Plaintiffs Mary Knight, 53, of La Marque, and Jerald Ford, 46, and Libby Soriano, 61, both of Texas City, said they became ill and endured foul odors from the mixture of chemicals emitted during the release.

Their attorney accused BP of releasing as much 9 million pounds of harmful chemicals between April 6 and May 22, 2010, while reporting to the state that about 500,000 pounds were released. Buzbee accused BP of failing to notify the community of the potentially harmful release of gases as part of a decision to place profit over the risk to health and the environment.

Buzbee said BP saved $90 million by allowing the gas to escape rather than shutting down a faulty compressor.

BP attorneys Damond Mace and Kenneth Tekell Sr. countered that the amount of chemicals released was so small that it posed no harm to the community. The illnesses suffered by the plaintiffs were common ailments that they would have suffered in any case, they said.

Buzbee said a flare designed to burn off the chemicals before they got into the air was defective, but Mace said the flare was 99.5 percent efficient.

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The two sides also clashed over the efficiency of monitors placed in the community to measure the amount of harmful gases. Mace called it one of the best monitoring systems in Texas, but Buzbee said the monitors were so poorly placed that they failed to detect any of the 193 releases of gas from the plant over the last five years.

BP sold the refinery last year to Marathon Petroleum Corp.

A settlement with the Texas attorney general for air-pollution violations from 2005 to 2011, including the release that led to the jury verdict, cost the company $50 million.

BP paid $2.1 billion to settle lawsuits by 3,000 people following a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers.

Buzbee filed a $1 billion lawsuit in April on behalf of 474 Galveston County residents who claim they were made ill by a 2011 release of noxious gases from the plant that lasted several weeks.

The 2010 release occurred while the company tried to halt the worst oil spill in U.S. history from its Deepwater Horizon rig off the Louisiana Coast. BP faces thousands of damage and injury claims from the spill.