BP’s Texas City Refinery Explosion

BP Refinery

Hazardous Materialscome in many different forms. The characteristics that make substances hazardous are that[;] they can cause serious injury as in burn’s and suffocation, long-lasting health effects for example cancer and leukemia, and can even cause death. Hazardous materials can also cause damage to nearby buildings, homes, and other property in the immediate area of these chemicals. Most often, spills and accidents happen during the production, storage, transportation, and disposal of these hazardous chemicals. In recent years, there have been about 15,000 HAZMAT incidents across the United States.

A major hazmat incident that occurred is the 2005 British Petroleum Texas City Refinery Explosion. In Texas City its residents know about the industrial facilities and their dangers. The area is often referred to as "Toxic City," because it has four chemical plants and three refineries in the immediate area. The other major refineries in the area are Marathon, Vallejo and Ashland. The BP complex which is known because it is extremely large, was built in 1934, and is the third largest of 149 petroleum refineries in the United States. It helped secure this title when BP bought out Amoco in 1998. The BP Amoco complex is the largest in Texas City, [with it ] being located on 1,200 acres of land. The refinery, which is set up along the Houston Ship Channel, has about 1,800 employees. The site supplies 3 percent of the nation's gas with a known capacity of 460,000 barrels per day and the ability to produce about 11 million gallons of gasoline a day. The Texas City refinery produces gasoline, jet fuels, diesel fuels and chemical feed stocks.]


At 1:20pm on March 23, 2005, 15 people were killed and 180 people were injured during an explosion that occurred at this particular Texas City refinery. The accident took place in the refinery’s isomerization unit where levels of octane in gasoline are continuously increased. Highlighted by this incident, experts have said that the most dangerous time to be around an oil refinery is not when it is running, as most people believe, but when it's in transition. During a refinery turnaround, which is a planned, periodic shut down of a refinery process unit or plant to perform maintenance, about 30,000 separate procedures are performed. While this process takes place, a large number of procedures are required to move explosive contents safely in and out of position when the isomerization unit is coming back on line after a turnaround.

The incident began when operators pumped a flammable liquid hydrocarboninto a designated tower without allowing any liquid to drain from the bottom of this same tower into storage tanks. Normal operating procedure is to do the exact opposite of this. The tower quickly flooded with hydrocarbons and was over pressurized, causing a “geyser-like” release from an outside vent stack. It is rumored that an alarm that was supposed to warn operators of the increasing amount of substances in the chamber had been disabled prior to the incident because they had been sounding inaccurately. Once the operators learned of the problem, they opened the over flowing valve, but too much equipment was already running to shut it down. In actuality, the workers['] actions aggravated the problem. The action then created a large “bubble” of vapor and liquid that was made of numerous flammable chemicals. As the vapors were being forced out of the vents, a diesel pick-up truck, owned by a contractor who was working at the site, was parked outside near the vent stack. While BP operators were attempting to turn[-]off furnace burners to keep the cloud from igniting, the truck's owner returned to his truck and proceeded to crank the engine in an attempt to move his truck out of the area. Since there was a high hydrocarbon concentration in the area, the truck would not start. As the man continued to crank the engine, operators frantically tried to get him to stop. When the hydrocarbon content in the surrounding air fell from the sky, the idling truck provided a source of ignition for the vapor cloud to explode. Once a cloud of highly flammable material is ignited, two events occur; first, an initial flash takes all of the available oxygen out of the air, creating a giant vacuum; second, as the suction brings in fresh oxygen, the combustibles easily explode. This created a huge fire ball that consumed the immediate area and set off a series of five explosions in the surrounding areas killing nearby workers.] Many of the victims were employees that were in a meeting in trailers that were placed inappropriately close to the site during the time of explosion. They were killed due to blunt force trauma. This was one of the main issues BP was ridiculed for in the years following the explosion. The explosion and fire left a lot of destruction and rubble at the plant, including a row of vehicles destroyed by flames, as well as many blown apart and leveled building. Over 50 large chemical storage tanks were damaged or destroyed. A somewhat ironic fact that was discussed after the incident is that the contractors had just completed their part in its complicated, nine-week "turnaround," or scheduled maintenance cycle, accident-free.]


All of the injuries involved workers at the refinery, "We're talking about some pretty serious burns, some people with a combination of burns and blunt trauma from the explosion itself or what we see a lot of times, people who are blown back from the explosion and run into some other thing or structure. We've seen some people injured in the collapse of some structures. We've seen some orthopedic injuries, some burns. We have a lot of people with eardrum injuries where they've blown out their eardrums and can't really hear or communicate well right now because of that. So, we're seeing a wide spectrum of injuries at the moment," said Brian Zachariah, UTMB's emergency medical director.]

Damaged area surrounding the ISOM unit/blowdowndrum

The hazmat agents involved in the accident were chemical; there were hydrocarbons, like gasoline and diesel fuel along with other flammable chemicals present at the time of the explosion. An immediate action taken in response to the release was that about two minutes after the major blast took place[; ] [,]a Level 3D alert was issued. This alert level is the second to highest in the community emergency response program. It alerts people in the surrounding areas to stay indoors, close and seal windows and doors, stay off the phone and monitor local news media for updates. This particular alert is also an automatic call for mutual aid responders to converge on the scene of the incident. Texas City's emergency services crews began responding moments after the isom unit shattered. BP has its own fire brigade, and has a mutual response plan with the brigades of the other two Texas City oil refineries, owned by Marathon Ashland Petroleum and Valero along with the surrounding counties. According to Texas City Fire Department chief Gerald Grimm, BP had 30 fire alarms in 2003 and 27 in 2004, so they apparently had quite a bit of practice prior to the incident. Soon after the initial explosion 75 local, regional and industrial emergency response units surrounded the site. Along with the help of local emergency units, the refinery itself was said to have had walls of water that sprayed from "monitors,” which are water cannons specifically located around the site, which were capable of releasing up to 1500 gallons of water per minute. First at the scene were news choppers, followed by a Life Flight helicopter from a hospital in Houston. 20 minutes after the accident, the airspace had become so crowded that the Federal Aviation Administration declared a no-fly zone 3000 ft. high and 3 miles wide. An hour after the initial explosion, the fire had been contained, and within two hours it was nearly out.] The incident command system was used in response to the incident in the way that, the areas incident management team (IMT) served as their field emergency operations center. This established a kind of nerve center so that plans could be developed and put in action, based on hazmat incident training emergency workers and officials had previously done. It was implemented effectively because there were no delays in response time and there was a clear idea of who was responsible for what action.

According to NIMS and the NRF the response was sufficient in the way that there was a multiagency response that was both quick and effective. Since the explosion itself was caused by employee error along with a system malfunction, there wasn’t very much mitigating the responders could have done besides perfect training exercises that were already in place. The response crews did a good job of preventing further injury by responding within minutes of the explosion, notifying local citizens and asking for a multiagency response. The emergency response was also similar to guidelines set out in NIMS and the NRF because they quickly set up an emergency operations center and had clear communication across numerous agencies, which helped limit the number of mistakes that could be made by first responders that day.

In the following weeks after the accident, BP's operations came under intense examination to determine the cause of the explosion. The Chemical Safety Board recommended that it would be wise for BP Headquarters to select individuals for an independent panel who could examine their safety procedures. The panel was referred to as the Baker Panel, and was head[ed] by [former] Secretary of State James Baker. After the investigation it was said that BP’s blowdown drums, towers used to release evaporating gases, which are a commonly found at refineries, had unreliable alarm systems. As a safety precaution, most tower vents in other refineries include a flare system, which is a pilot light that ignites potentially hazardous vapors as they funnel out of the refinery. In 1992, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)[indicated] to the Texas refinery that it was necessary for them to switch to a more safe flare system. Amoco, which merged with BP in 1998, appealed and OSHA withdrew the request. So as a result this particular refinery continued to use stacks that allowed gases to escape.] Another mistake found during the investigation was that the location of the temporary trailers was a major issue. Apparently, BP rules allowed trailers to be placed within 350 ft. of refining units if they receive a “site-specific” analysis. Meaning that depending on which site the trailers were located at, they may have permission to be dangerously close to isomerization units. To highlight BP’s negligent safety practices, it was found that a lot of other refineries take the additional precaution of requiring personnel that are not needed for the operation, to be evacuated when units like the isom are being brought on line.] It was also said that BP did not exercise good process safety leadership and did not manage their employees on the basis of safety.]

As BP continued to be under critical examination, the Chief Executive John Browne decided that he would enforce BP’s code of conduct. First, he called attention to the fact that BP was responsible for what happened inside the boundaries of its site, and that this incident would not be considered an exception. Second, he promised that the company would provide support to the victims and families involved in this tragedy [:] for example; one week after, at the exact same time of explosion, workers held a moment of silence for the victims. Third, he said that BP would pledge all of its resources to determine the cause of the explosion and fire; he also made it a point to say that BP would take any action necessary to prevent it from happening again[,] which included costly upgrades that were needed at the refinery. And fourth, he guaranteed the company would gladly cooperate with government agencies that were investigating the accident and promised to make BP’s investigation public and share lessons learned with others.]

As a result of the explosion[,] OSHA fined BP 87 million dollars. OSHA representatives have said that there were around 270 safety notifications issued regarding hazards at the plant, and that BP still has not made any efforts to fix these potential hazards since the explosion, which resulted in $56.7 million more in fines. Safety inspectors have also found 439 other instances where BP has attempted to take short cuts to get around the rules[,] resulting in another $30.7 million in fines. Representatives of OSHA have said that the record-breaking fine is being seen as a way to force BP to fix the oil refinery problems before another major explosion occurs. BP also put aside $1.6 billion for legal compensation for the people who were injured and to pay for the large amounts of damage caused by the Texas City explosion. There were a total of 2,000 lawsuits filed against BP in the 2 years following as a result of the refinery accident, a lot of which were made by victims and their families. Regardless of what OSHA representatives have reported, BP officials continue to claim that the refinery is up to OSHA’s standards, and have chosen to challenge the fines.

On top of the fines given by OSHA, BP has also had many environmental problems at the Texas City plant. BP Products North America has also agreed to pay $180 million to settle a benzene emissionslawsuit because of issues at the Texas City oil refinery. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)], which was established in 1970 to reduce and control air and water pollution, noise pollution, and radiation, clearly laid out what the Clean Air regulations are for BP. In a settlement, BP agreed to spend $161 million to fix their Clean Air Act violations by setting up better pollution controls, enhanced maintenance and monitoring devices and improving their internal management practices. BP was also faced with a toxic tort lawsuit because of benzene emission in 2007. The emissions released a foul smell and caused health problems for residents in the surrounding areas, the emissions have been known to cause individuals who come into contact with them to develop certain forms of leukemia and cancer. The lawsuit was filed by 143 people who claimed that BP was negligent in providing information about the emissions. There have also been a number of wrongful death lawsuits that have been filed against the company as a result of the 2005 explosion.]

As BP continues at appeal the record-breaking fines, the most recent time being in October 2007, there have been a large number of issues being brought up throughout the case. There has been an instance where the U.S. District Court judge, Gray H. Miller, had to recuse himself after victims and families accused him of having a conflict of interest. This decision was made on the basis of Miller overseeing the BP settlement, because his former employer Fulbright & Jaworski, is handling BP’s defense. The victim’s notion stated that “Judge Miller’s [law] partner Otway Denny and others associated with Fulbright and Jaworski, began to represent the criminal defendant (BP Products North America Inc…with respect to its liability for the explosion and its consequences; 28 USC Sec. 455 provides, in part, that a U.S. District Judge shall disqualify himself in circumstances where, in private practice, ‘he served as a lawyer in a matter in controversy, or a lawyer with whom he previously practiced served during such association as a lawyer concerning the matter.” The fact that Miller had worked with this group for 28 years presented a reasonable case of conflict of interest.

As the case against BP continues to go on, there have been about five more deaths at the Texas City refinery that can be linked to negligence on the part of BP. In May 2007, Tony Hayward took over as chief executive of BP, and said that he “planned to move BP away from its troubled past.” In order to help show the public that he was serious about his position, the Justice Department let it be known that BP and its partners had agreed to pay $373 million in fines and restitution to settle the accusations of both the environmental violations that led to the fatal Texas refinery explosion in 2005 and to also pay fines for crude oil leaks from pipelines in Alaska. Will BP continue to make the necessary changes to assure that another accident does not occur? Only time will tell.

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