More Trouble for BP: Fines and Lawsuits Over Refinery Calamities

The Gulf oil spill is not the only legal and public-relations issue facing oil-giant BP. In addition to agreeing to pay a record $50.6 million fine to settle an OSHA complaint, the company is being sued by the Texas Attorney General and also by 2,200 plaintiffs in a lawsuit over its Texas City refinery. The refinery has a history of problems and is a major contributor to BP's mounting legal troubles.

The Toxic Emissions

The latest incident started on April 6, 2010, when the Texas City refinery began spewing toxic chemicals into the air. A vital part of the plant's machinery had been damaged, and BP decided to keep producing gasoline during the repair by rerouting noxious gases from the damaged equipment to a 300-foot tall flare that burns toxic gases and emits carbon dioxide.

BP knew that incineration would not completely eliminate hazardous chemicals and that minimal amounts of toxic gases would escape. Accordingly, the company relied on monitors placed a few feet above the ground and also near the top of the flare to detect any excess emissions. Nonetheless, a BP spokesman said they failed to detect the full extent of the emissions until June 4, when they realized the release was far greater than permitted.

BP and Texas officials estimate that 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals escaped from the refinery over the 40 days that gases were rerouted to the flare. This includes 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide and 17,000 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen. Environmental experts said the release is one of the worst air quality violations in Texas in the last ten years.

The 2005 Explosion

Another disaster occurred at the Texas City refinery in 2005 when an explosion killed 15 workers and injured hundreds of others. Flammable liquid had been forced into a blowdown drum, which is the last escape route for liquid from overpressurized equipment. Heavy gases streamed from the drum into the air outside the refinery and sank to the ground in a clear fog. A spark from a truck idling 25 feet away then triggered a massive explosion.

Investigators determined that cost cutting and poor maintenance were contributing factors to the explosion. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found that "budget cuts and production pressures seriously impacted safe operations at Texas City." Additionally, both the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found significant fault with BP's operations.

Federal Action Against BP Over Its Texas City Refinery

After the 2005 explosion, OSHA fined BP $21 million for safety and health violations. The DOJ also prosecuted BP for the blast, and the company agreed to pay $50 million in criminal fines when it pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act.

As part of the plea agreement with the DOJ, BP promised to make OSHA's required improvements. But, in October 2009, OSHA determined that BP had not complied and fined the company $87 million for 270 remaining violations. OSHA also found 439 new "egregious and willful" safety violations.

In August 2010, BP agreed to pay a record $50.6 million to settle with OSHA over the 2005 violations that still remained in 2009. However, the company is contesting a $30 million fine for the new violations discovered by OSHA in 2009, and it also faces state investigation over the 2010 chemical release.

State Lawsuits Against BP for the Toxic Emissions

The Texas Attorney General has filed a lawsuit against BP alleging that "poor operating and maintenance practices" caused the "egregious amount of emissions" in spring 2010. It accuses the company of putting profits over environmental compliance, and BP could be fined up to $25,000 for each day of the toxic release.

In addition, BP is also being sued for the chemical release by thousands of plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit. They claim that their exposure to extremely high levels of benzene and other toxic chemicals while working at the refinery or living in Texas City has injured their long-term health. They are also seeking $10 billion in punitive damages because, according to the complaint, BP routinely does not report or underreports to authorities and victims the nature and quantity of chemicals spilled at the refinery.

Anyone who has been injured while working at or living near an oil refinery should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to determine whether they can hold the company responsible and are entitled to any compensation for their injuries.