BP, OSHA, API draw fire in hearing about refinery blast

Questions during a US House committee hearing about the fatal 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Tex., hinted at toughened plant inspections and an end to voluntary industry standards.

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 23 -- Questions during a US House committee hearing about the fatal 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Tex., hinted at toughened plant inspections and an end to voluntary industry standards.

Members of the Education and Labor Committee criticized BP America Inc.'s failure to implement process safety procedures developed by the oil industry at the company's 446,500 b/cd Texas City refinery and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration's enforcement of federal workplace safety laws. They also slapped American Petroleum Institute safety standards with which members can choose not to comply.

The Mar. 23, 2005, accident, involving C5-C6 isomerization unit, killed 15 workers and injured 180.

"The BP explosion was the biggest workplace disaster in 18 years, yet it received very little congressional scrutiny until today. Even more upsetting is that 2 years after this catastrophe, we're still seeing a disturbing pattern of major fires and explosions at US refineries," said Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.).

He said that over several months the committee will examine issues including "OSHA's failure to issue important standards to protect American workers, the Bush administration's transformation of OSHA from a law enforcement organization into a so-called 'voluntary compliance organization,'� the chronic under-reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses, and the agency's ineffective penalty structure."

Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), the committee's senior minority member, said primary responsibility for the accident rests with BP. "The repeated accidents and number of citations at the Texas City facility should have alerted management to the potential for imminent danger," he said. BP "cannot be—and, indeed, has not been—given a pass for its failings," McKeon said, noting that the company will pay "the largest fine in OSHA's history."

Recurring problems
In its final report issued on Mar. 20 about the accident, the US Chemical Safety Board said many recurring safety problems previously identified in BP internal audits, reports, and investigations led to the accident (OGJ Online, Mar. 20, 2007).

The refinery is regulated under OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) standard, which was issued in 1992 as a result of chemical accident provisions included in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, CSB Chairwoman Carolyn W. Merritt told the committee. The accident likely would not have occurred if the standard, which requires covered facilities to implement 14 management elements to prevent catastrophic releases of hazardous substances, had been applied, she explained.

"Federal regulators did not conduct any comprehensive, planned process safety inspections at the Texas City refinery. In fact, our investigation found that in the 10 years from 1995 to 2005, federal OSHA only conducted nine such inspections anywhere in the country, and none in the refining sector," Merritt said.

Other witnesses included API Pres. Red Cavaney; Nuclear Safety Institute Pres. Frank "Skip" Bowman, who served on the independent panel chaired by former US Sec. of State James A. Baker III which BP assembled to investigate the fire and explosion; Kim Nibarger, health and safety specialist with the United Steelworkers of America; and Eva Rowe, whose parents died in the accident.

The panel did not include representatives of either BP or OSHA. Edwin D. Foulke Jr., assistant US labor secretary for OSHA, said in a statement on the day CSB issued its final report that it confirmed OSHA's findings.

The agency will conduct more than 100 refinery inspections this year and is implementing a national emphasis program "to ensure that every refinery under its jurisdiction is inspected and all employees are protected," Foulk said.

Infrequent inspections
But committee member Phil Hare (D-Ill.) said it was inexcusable that OSHA had not conducted frequent inspections at the Texas City refinery before the accident. "What is the problem? Does it have enough inspectors?" he asked Merritt.

"The rule is there for inspections to be done," Merritt replied. "OSHA intended to do this every few months or years, but it was never able to implement its plan. We've found states and local governments, including Contra Costa County in California, that do a better job, including inspections every 3 years."

Cavaney said he agreed that more frequent inspections would be an improvement because situations at refineries and chemical plants change over time. He also said the US oil industry has an active program of 500 recommended standards and practices, including approximately 110 related to refinery process safety.

While these did not include recommendations for safe placement of contractors' trailers in a refinery before the fire and explosion at the Texas City refinery, API began to develop one as soon as this was identified as a major factor in the accident. The association expects to be ready to adopt the recommendation later this spring, Cavaney said.

'No teeth'
Other committee members and witnesses wondered if this voluntary approach is sufficient.

"I'm deeply disturbed that one of your members can decide not to implement your practices while still getting the benefit of being part of your organization with its high standards," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH). "Basically, your organization has no teeth."

Merritt observed, "The problem with voluntary programs is that not everybody volunteers." She noted that in its other investigations and examinations of refineries, CSB has found some which that API's standards, others that meet them, and others that ignore them.

Responding to an inquiry by Miller, Bowman said the Nuclear Safety Institute requires its members to follow standards or be expelled. The group adopted this policy following the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania. Bowman said the Baker report recommends that oil refiners implement a similar approach.

Refiners already are applying recommendations from the Baker and CSB investigations to their operations, according to Cavaney. He said API intends to work with the United Steelworkers to develop new refining workplace safety procedures as CSB has recommended.

But Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-NJ) was skeptical. He asked Cavaney if API would support increasing OSHA's staff, training, and general resources; making OSHA require reporting of close calls and warning events; requiring that injury reports be kept for each site, including for contractors and others involved in dangerous activities; implementing a process to review audits; and requiring OSHA to devote its resources to enforcement instead of voluntary programs and partnerships. Cavaney said he would supply answers as soon as he could get them.

Miller also was critical. "Companies can say they belong to an organization that's on the cutting edge of technology and safety but not follow its recommendations," he said. "I think we're reaching a point where API could become an enabler of very bad behavior."

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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