BP, OSHA Get 'F' in Government's Final Report

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BP, OSHA Get 'F' in Government's Final Report

HOUSTON -- The federal government's final report concerning the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, released Tuesday, criticized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a U.S. worker safety agency, for its sloppy oversight. The report also reinforced its claims that a lack of organization and safety on BP's part caused the blast that killed 15 people and injured an additional 170, in the nation's worst industrial accident since 1990, The Associated Press reported.

The 335-page report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) alleges that the Texas City plant had several fatal accidents during the last 30 years, but during that time, OSHA completed only one process safety management inspection there, in 1998.

Additional unplanned inspections were made at the refinery after accidents, complaints or referrals, although the agency would not say the number. In addition, those inspections were narrower in scope and shorter than planned inspections, the AP reported.

"OSHA's national focus on inspecting facilities with high injury rates, while important, has resulted in reduced attention to preventing less frequent, but catastrophic, process safety incidents such as the one at Texas City," the report said.

Despite the shortcomings of the agency, the CSB pointed its finger at BP as the cause of the explosion, noting that "cost-cutting in the 1990s by Amoco and then BP left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe."

"The combination of cost-cutting, production pressures and failure to invest caused a progressive deterioration of safety at the refinery," added CSB Chairwoman Carolyn W. Merritt.

BP acquired the refinery after it merged with Amoco in 1998. Shortly after, BP ordered a 25 percent, across-the-board cut in fixed spending at its refineries, according to the report. In a preliminary investigation report after the blast, the CSB stated that the facility was home to bad management and failed to recognize and correct problems.

In 2002, BP commissioned audits and studies that revealed serious safety issues at the refinery, including a lack of preventative maintenance and training, said Merrit. Those reports were shown to company executives and at least one member of the executive board, but "BP's response was too little and too late," Merritt said.

The explosion that started the investigation was the result of an overfilled isomerization unit, which boosts octane level in gasoline. The highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons in the unit caused a geyser of liquid and vapor to ignite as the unit started up. Alarms and gauges at the plant did not signal the overflow, the AP reported. The unit had a history of problems, and was not attached to a flare system that would have burned off vapor, which would have prevented or minimized the accident, the CSB said.

The final report recommends that BP appoint a board member with experience in process safety, in addition to establishing an improved incident reporting program through BP senior executives that will use new criteria to measure safety performance.

It also calls on OSHA to "identify those facilities at the greatest risk of a catastrophic accident" and conduct comprehensive inspections at those facilities. The CSB also suggested OSHA hire or develop specialized inspectors and expand its process safety management training, the AP reported.

Since the accident, BP cooperated with the investigation and committed to widespread safety improvements and investments since the accident, said the CSB. In January, following an independent review by a panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, BP pledged to increase spending on improvements at its U.S. refineries from $1.2 billion in 2005 to an average of $1.7 billion a year from 2007 to 2010, the report stated.