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US: BP Admits Workers Were Not Root Cause of Blast


Employee error only partly to blame, company officials now say


by Anne BelliHouston Chronicle
May 31st, 2005

BP backed off statements made last week that the root causes of its deadly Texas City refinery explosion were that workers weren't following procedures and supervisors were lax.

While those were indeed critical factors leading to the blast, they were not the deeper causes, as the company had said in releasing its interim report on the accident a week ago, BP spokesman Hugh Depland said.

"We simply used the wrong language to describe the report's findings," he said. "Our fault."

The true causes have not yet been identified, he said.

Fifteen people were killed and more than 170 injured in the blast, the worst United States refinery accident in recent memory.

Last Tuesday, BP Products North America President Ross Pillari said the company was releasing its interim report because he did not expect its ongoing inquiry "to change the root causes of the accident" being made public that day. He went on to describe operational and supervisory failures by workers.

Two days later, Depland reiterated, "The primary root cause was a failure to follow operating procedures and a failure of supervision."

Those statements, and the company's decision to fire several of the operators and supervisors, have prompted angry reactions from union leaders, victims and others. They said it appeared the company was laying blame at the feet of low- and mid-level workers while sidestepping broader responsibility for more systemic management problems, such as a lax attitude toward safety.

 

'Underlying root cause'

The Houston Chronicle reported Friday that BP's finding of worker error was at odds with guidelines of the nation's largest and most respected chemical safety organization.

According to the Center for Chemical Process Safety, citing workers "is a common premature stopping point" and "not a root cause, but instead a symptom of an underlying root cause."

The chairman of the subcommittee that developed those guidelines was then-BP executive Michael Broadribb. He is serving as a "root cause specialist" in the BP investigation.

Late Monday, Depland said via e-mail that he had consulted with Broadribb and that the company had used "some incorrect language."

"He told me the interim report has not identified root causes," Depland said. "The issues the team has identified are listed in the report as 'Provisional Critical Factors.' "

Some BP critics said Tuesday that the company is apparently backpedaling.

"They got called on it," said Houston attorney Rob Ammons, who is representing dozens of injured workers and families of those killed. "It was a botched public relations stunt."

Gary Beevers, region director of the United Steelworkers, said the real root causes for the fatal blast lie in management's decisions to overlook major safety issues raised for years by the union and others.

"As far as I'm concerned they tried to put the blame on lower-level workers and make them scapegoats," Beevers said. "We are going forward with our own investigation."

The blast occurred just after lunch as workers were restarting a section of the refinery's so-called isomerization unit after a maintenance turnaround.

The unit produces chemicals used to boost the octane of unleaded gasoline. The start-up of a unit is considered one of the most dangerous times in refinery operations.

According to BP, operators who weren't following procedures allowed hydrocarbons to flow too quickly into a raffinate splitter tower, where they were then heated too quickly. That caused the materials to overpressure and then flow into a relief area called a blowdown drum. When that quickly filled, the hot flammable hydrocarbon then filled a vent stack, causing the liquid and vapors to flow onto the plant grounds.

A truck, electrical switch or other electrical source then ignited the liquid and vapors, creating a blast heard and felt up to five miles away.

A fireball rolled over a nearby construction trailer, killing most of those inside.

Union officials have said they expressed concerns about the location of the trailer as well as BP's use of the vent stack as opposed to a flare system. Had a flare been in place, the excess liquid and vapors likely would have been burned off and the accident may have been prevented.

 

Management not blamed

BP said it is implementing new policies to locate trailers away from process units and to replace vent stacks with flare or closed systems.

But it stopped short of saying that the management erred by not doing so earlier and said that safety reviews did not consider that workers and supervisors would have so seriously ignored company procedures.

Officials with the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard investigation Board have said their own independent investigation has focused on BP's decision to continue using the vent stack.

They also have said they are examining the company's decision to place the doomed construction trailers so close to the isom unit, as well as its training practices.

anne.belli@chron.com

 





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