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Safety

Chemical Board Blasts BP

Change in oil industry practices urged

by Jeff Johnson
November 6, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 45

Merritt
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Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN
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Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN

Safety recommendations for petroleum refineries, triggered by a fatal accident in March 2005 at a Texas City, Texas, BP refinery, were issued by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) on Oct. 31. A day earlier, the board ripped into BP for failing to act on long-running plant safety problems.

The board's recommendations focus on a refinery pressure-relief system that failed and resulted in an explosion at the BP plant, killing 15 workers and injuring 180 others.

A distillation tower and attached blowdown drum were overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons during start-up of the plant's octane-boosting isomerization unit, CSB says. The blowdown drum—intended to capture excess hydrocarbons—overflowed and exploded in a geyser of flame as it was vented directly to the atmosphere rather than through a flared, controlled safety system.

The board urges the American Petroleum Institute and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to require refineries to eliminate unsafe blowdown systems.

CSB's investigation found eight similar releases at the Texas City plant between 1994 and 2004. Two times the incidents resulted in fire. In 1992, OSHA cited the refinery for its unsafe blowdown drum, but the owner at the time, Amoco, got the fine withdrawn.

Internal BP documents, CSB says, showed that BP knew for years of safety problems at the Texas City refinery, as well as 34 other BP business units.

The board also found a history of cutbacks in maintenance, safety, and training, CSB Chairman Carolyn W. Merritt says. The company had even intended to replace the blowdown drum that led to the fire, according to a 2002 business plan, but a needed study was never completed.

Neil Chapman, a BP spokesman, says the company agrees with many of the criticisms and acknowledges failures in the company's "feedback loop" and its ability to follow proper procedures. However, he says BP does not understand some board criticisms but defers comment until CSB issues a final report in March 2007.

More than 1,000 claims have been filed against BP by workers, their families, and nearby property owners, Chapman adds. The company has set aside $1.6 billion to settle claims.

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