GREEN
08/10/2010 12:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

BP Texas City Victims Seek To Overturn 'Lenient' Plea Deal

David Leining, a BP worker based in the oil giant's Texas City refinery, was in a construction trailer discussing safety issues of all things when he heard the first blast. His work site was exploding.

Leining was one of the lucky ones. While most of the people in that meeting were killed, Leining, now 58 and retired, only broke both his ankles and suffered permanent knee damage, hearing loss and short-term memory loss.

In March 2005, BP's Texas City refinery, located 30 miles south of Houston, exploded, killing 15 and injuring hundreds. The incident raised to 40 the death toll at the refinery over the last two decades. The repercussions of that tragedy continue to this day -- from continuing physical injuries of workers to fines assessed by the government -- and the massive oil spill in the Gulf has refocused attention on BP's actions at the refinery.

On Monday, the state of Texas sued BP, alleging that it illegally emitted 500,000 pounds of air contaminants at the refinery over a recent 40-day period and polluted the environment over the last 10 years. And lawyers for the 2005 explosion's victims are trying to overturn the oil giant's plea deal with the government that was reached in the wake of the incident.

After the 2005 explosion, the company pleaded guilty to willful safety violations in front of an administrative court within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The company was granted a plea deal, which included a $21 million fine -- a fraction of the $1 billion revenue the refinery generated for BP in 2004 -- and a four-year probation during which BP agreed to correct safety violations at the refinery.

BP paid the fine and since then claims it has paid more than $1 billion to victims of the blast. But OSHA reviewed the plea deal four years later in September 2009 and found that BP failed to make safety corrections. As a result, the agency slapped BP with an unprecedented $87 million fine.

However, this fine has yet to be paid because BP is contesting the indictment.

"We continue to believe that we are in full compliance with the Settlement Agreement, and we look forward to demonstrating that," said Keith Casey, Texas City refinery manager, in a statement issued last October.

Next Tuesday, BP will go before OSHA to officially appeal the fine. The hearing will determine whether BP violated the terms of its 2005 plea deal. If so, it could pave the way for criminal restitution at the federal level. After all, parallel to the OSHA indictment, BP also pleaded guilty in 2007 to criminal environmental charges for the blast in a case that was prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, BP had to pay the DOJ $50 million in fines, face a three-year probation and adhere to OSHA's 2005 plea deal.

"With the rig explosion I think people will be pretty intolerant with BP's request for more time to make improvements," says Brent Coon, one of the more prominent attorneys for the victims.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill and numerous other safety violations, Coon and fellow lawyer David Perry have stepped up efforts to throw out the 2005 plea deal altogether. For the last few months, they have sent letters and met with federal prosecutors to re-open the September 2005 judgment, which they say has done little to improve the refinery's track record.

Meanwhile, the slow legal proceedings have greatly frustrated Texas City victims. While BP has managed to put off the $87 million fine for almost a year, victims of the blast continue to rack up massive medical expenses. Perry claims that one of his clients lost both his arms and has been in and out of the hospital "all summer" to treat infections; another victim lost part of his face and is non-functional from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); one woman has breathing problems from scars in her lungs and must be cared after full-time by her husband, yet another victim.

"Somebody at BP needs to go jail," Leising says. "That's the only way to wake them up. So far they've just had their hand slapped."

Perry agrees. "It's been five years and [the government] still hasn't made things right at Texas City, as OSHA well knows," he says. "If we are to believe that the government is truly going to hold BP accountable for the Deepwater catastrophe, then it needs to start with enforcing the law against BP in the Texas City tragedy."

BP and OSHA declined requests for comment.