THE BLOG

Texas City

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

In memorial to the 15 workers who died and to the 180 who were injured in an explosion and fire on March 23, 2005 at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, the United Steelworkers last week formally issued a Call to Safety to the oil industry.

The USW, which represents workers at 71 of the 149 U.S. refineries, challenged the oil industry to immediately implement ten critical safety measures. These are actions that could have prevented the disaster at Texas City. They are steps the USW demands that the oil industry take to prevent future deaths, destruction, community danger, environmental degradation, and unnecessary decreases in gasoline supplies.

At the BP refinery in Texas, just after lunch time in March two years ago, workers were restarting a device where compounds are made for higher octane gasoline. As they did, dangerous hydrocarbons overflowed.

These vented as a liquid from the unit's stack and collected as a vapor on the ground below. A worker in a Jeep about 150 feet away noticed the vapors, then a flash. His windshield shattered. The fumes had ignited.

He survived. Fifteen others didn't. Many of the 180 injured are permanently disfigured, with burns or lost limbs. Others suffer recurring depression and nightmares.

This wasn't an accident and should never be characterized as one. OSHA issued BP 300 citations for violations and ordered it to pay a record $21 million fine.

What is more disquieting, however, is a study done by the Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education now shows that 15 dead workers, 180 injured, $21 million in fines have meant almost nothing to the remainder of the oil industry which, the center found, used virtually none of the Texas City lessons learned to prevent their own disasters.

The Mazzocchi Center, with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, conducted a 64-item survey of safety conditions at the 71 USW-represented refineries in the U.S. The survey focused on conditions that led to the BP catastrophe. The center wanted to know what the industry had done since Texas City.

The answer is precious little, according to the center's report. Three factors, three highly hazardous conditions, have been found to be key to the terrible consequences at Texas City. The survey found that at the 51 refineries that responded, 90 percent had one of these conditions still present. Ninety percent!

Fifty-three percent had all three of these highly hazardous conditions. Thirty-five percent had two.

These places were questioned nine months later, long after reports explained why the Texas City explosion happened and how it could be prevented. And some of the highly hazardous conditions are highly-easily correctable.

For example, one of the hazardous conditions is placing trailers and unprotected buildings near likely-to-explode process facilities. Here's the solution: move the trailers and evacuate the unprotected buildings. Virtually everyone who died at Texas City perished in a trailer located right next to the mechanism that blew up. Officials said later that if it had been located further away, they'd have survived. Why isn't that enough information for every refinery across America to act?

Well, that kind of information wasn't enough for BP to act either. It wasn't like Texas City was the first oil facility cataclysm. On Oct. 23, 1989, an explosion and fire at the Phillips 66 Company's petrochemical plant in Pasadena, Texas, killed 23 workers and injured more than 130. On Oct. 16, 1995, an explosion and fire at the Pennzoil Products Company Refinery in Rouseville, Pa., killed five and injured another worker. On Jan. 21., 1997, one worker was killed and 46 injured in an explosion and fire at the Tosco Avon Refinery in Martinez, Calif.

In all these disasters, investigations noted that separating the hazardous processes from other workers could have saved lives. In its report on the Tosco incident, the EPA wrote, "Some of the injured were inside or near contractor trailers close to the Hydrocracker Unit. The blast from the explosion blew out the windows of one trailer and the flames prevented workers from exiting the trailer door. The workers climbed out of the trailer window facing away from the fire."

This is strikingly similar to what happened in Texas City, except that many people in the BP trailer, which was located beside the mechanism that exploded, did not make it out alive. BP had 16 years to learn from the Phillips incident, 10 from Pennzoil, eight from Tosco Avon. Still, it did not.

A year before the catastrophe, BP violated safety regulations at Texas City, and two workers were killed on Sept. 2, 2004. BP was fined $109,500. Also that year, there was an explosion and fire at Texas City for which the company was fined $63,000, and OSHA criticized BP for its "disregard for worker protection" and failing to follow procedures that could have saved lives. Still, BP did not learn.

The disaster at Texas City and pressure from the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers there, may have worked to chasten BP somewhat on safety, however. The corporation signed an agreement with the USW in January under which BP agreed to pursue a safety initiative based on findings and recommendations of boards and panels that investigated the explosion. The USW believes BP has taken steps to correct the highly hazardous conditions described in the Mazzocchi report, and the USW now has an agreement that gives it the ability to pressure BP for safety.

The USW also believes that other oil companies where it represents workers have taken significant steps. Shell, for example, moved trailers away from hazardous processes at refineries.

Still, the Mazzocchi Center survey shows that the U.S. oil industry as a whole has failed to use the lessons of the Texas City catastrophe to make the changes necessary to prevent recurrence.

That means more workers' lives are threatened. That means the lives of more first responders are jeopardized. That means the lives of innocents living in communities surrounding these refineries across America are endangered. In the Phillips 66 explosion, debris catapulted six miles into surrounding neighborhoods. It also means that adjacent industries are imperiled. Some of the six major refineries and chemical plants around the BP facility reported minor damage from the blast.

In addition, it means that the oil companies are placing gasoline supplies at risk - at a time when prices already are skyrocketing. Limited refining capacity is a problem now. Imagine what would happen to prices if another refinery were lost.

It's not as if oil companies can't afford safety measures. They're among the most profitable organizations on the planet. Exxon Mobil Corp. made $40 billion in 2006, the largest profit ever for a corporation. This year, in July, all major oil companies reported refinery profit records. These numbers are in the billions for a quarter - Exxon Mobil's was $3.39 billion, its largest ever. Chevron's was $5.38 billion. Just for refining. Just for a quarter.

These companies can afford to play by the OSHA rules. They can afford to learn from past errors. They can afford to protect their workers and the communities in which they've located their refineries. They have an obligation to respond to the USW's Call to Safety and take the ten critical steps recommended in the Mazzocchi report.