Thursday, August 19, 2010

More problems for BP at Texas City - Part 2

In August 2010, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found that between April 6th 2010 and May 22nd, 2010, BP's Texas City refinery allegedly released a mixture of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals over a 46 day period. This is one of the largest chemical releases in recent Texas history according to environmental experts. As a result, BP is facing a $10 billion class action lawsuit seeking damages for 2212 plaintiffs who breathed in the toxic chemicals. Attorney Tony Buzbee who filed the lawsuit says that he has uncovered evidence that BP has experienced 400 releases annually, 200 leaks and one fire per week at their Texas City refinery. In this most recent incident, approximately 538,000 pounds of various chemicals including 17,000 pounds of benzene along with 189,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, 37,519 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 61,000 pounds of propane and 34,645 pounds of isobutane were released over the 46 day period. It appears that BP was aware of the fact that a seal on one of its ultracracker hydrogen compressors was compromised after a fire, however, they elected to keep the refinery online and continued to operate the unit at 55% capacity, continuing to produce gasoline despite the fact that the operation was releasing toxic chemicals. Normally, the chemicals involved would be reused for fuel in the plant, however, BP chose to flare and burn the gases, a process which they knew would incompletely break down the chemicals. Studies show that anywhere between 2 and 20 percent of products that are sent up a flare stack are not burned and pass into the atmosphere. Details about the release of the toxins were not made until BP submitted a final incident report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on June 4th, nearly 2 months after the fact. 

Here's a quote from the class action lawsuit:

"1. Profits over the safety of people. In order to avoid losing the profit from shutting down an operating unit, and in an attempt to avoid the publicity such a shutdown would have garnered in the financial press, the Defendant instead spewed thousands of pounds of one of the most deadly and nastiest carcinogens into the atmosphere, exposing unsuspecting onsite workers and nearby residents.

2. This is a class action, brought pursuant to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, that deals with a large-volume release of 538,000 pounds1 of chemicals and compounds, including an estimated 17,000 pounds of Benzene2, that occurred from April 6, 2010 to May 16, 2010 at the BP Texas City Refinery (hereafter the “Refinery” or the “Facility”); although, such event must be viewed in light of BP’s long and tortured history of failure in the area of Process Safety Management. In this case, tens of thousands individuals were injured and had his or her long-term health put in jeopardy after being exposed to extremely high levels of Benzene and other toxic chemicals while working at the BP Texas City Refinery or by simply living or working in Texas City. Plaintiffs and all members of the Class, the Worker Sub-class and the Texas City Sub-class seek remedy for this exposure, and also attempt to do, through this case, what none of the authorities thus far has been able to do—put an end to BP’s continuous pollution of the air, ground, and water, and the continued exposure to harmful substances of workers at the BP Texas City Refinery. In this effort, Plaintiffs seek punitive damages against BP in excess of $10 billion."

Back in June 2009, the Texas Attorney General also filed a civil lawsuit against BP for poor operating procedures at the Texas City refinery that led to "a pattern of unnecessary and unlawful Emissions Events", events that the lawsuit claims were and continue to be avoidable.

Here's a direct quote from that lawsuit:

"These administrative orders (from TCEQ) show that BP's poor operating and maintenance practices have resulted in an egregious amount of Emissions Events in the past few years. These events continue unabated to the present."

On August 9th, 2010 Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed a petition charging BP for the second time in as many years because of this year's emissions as noted above. Here is a quote from the Attorney General's press release:

"Today’s legal action is the second against BP since June 2009, when the Attorney General filed a legal action alleging that the facility’s poor operational practices led to harmful releases following a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 170.

Of the 72 violations cited in the State’s ongoing 2009 case, seven involve the same operating compressor unit that was responsible for the emissions in today’s enforcement action. When the unit malfunctioned and caught fire on April 6, BP workers shut it down and routed escaping gases to flares. Rather than shut down associated units while compressor repairs were made, BP chose to keep operating those other units, which led to unlawful release of contaminants to the air for almost 40 days. BP self-reported the incident to the TCEQ.

The State’s investigation shows that BP’s failure to properly maintain its equipment caused the malfunction and could have been prevented. BP’s own self-reporting data indicate that seal filters protecting the compressor failed because of an iron sulfide buildup, likely because BP failed to properly maintain these devices.

The Attorney General is seeking civil penalties of no less than $50 nor greater than $25,000 per day of each violation of state air quality laws, as well as attorneys’ fees and investigative costs."

As late as Friday of last week, BP reported yet another accident at their refinery that took place on Thursday August 12th; an ultracracker upset resulted in emissions from the unit for about a 9 hour period.

Oh brother, apparently it never ends for BP and those unfortunate enough to live near the Texas City refinery.

Update: January 23, 2011

The lawsuit, originally filed in U.S. Federal court, has now been filed in Texas State Court.  There are now 30,000 plaintiffs.



  1. I discovered this blog through the WSJ forums. I really identify with a lot of what you say, especially what you say about being a social liberal and fiscal conservative. That's me!


    About this post, BP has more problem than just this single spill. As this post shows, the big spill wasn't an isolated incident, it was a manifestation of a chronic lack of quality control and lack of prioritization of protection of environment and public health.

    Unfortunately, this problem isn't limited to BP; Exxon, Shell, all the major oil companies have similar problems.

    What's the solution? I think the best thing we can do is to reduce our oil usage. We can do this voluntarily, and we can also create incentives for reducing it through gas taxes and/or a carbon tax. I would strongly support such a tax, especially if its revenue were used to reduce income or payroll taxes, or pay down the deficit.

    I've actually been meaning to write about this on my blog of ideas, but I haven't yet...if you'd be interested I could let you know when it's done!

  2. Alex. Please let me know when you publish. I looked through both of your blogs - unfortunately, I'm not a tea drinker but I liked your article on assertiveness with educators (just a bit too late for me but I could have used it a couple of decades ago!). You might want to check out my posting on Exxon's problems in Brooklyn at: