The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 14           April 11, 2005  
Bosses’ profit drive behind
Texas City refinery blast
Explosion kills 15 workers, injures over 100
(front page)
AFP/Getty Images/William Philpott

Section of Texas City British Petroleum refinery destroyed after March 23 explosion.

HOUSTON—A massive explosion at the Texas City British Petroleum (BP) refinery on March 23 killed 15 workers and injured more than 100 others. Several of the injured remain in critical condition in four area hospitals, some with burns over 90 percent of their body. Of those injured, about 70 are plant workers and 30 residents of the area, the Associated Press reported.

The explosion shook the ground and blew out windows in Texas City, a city with a population of 47,000 located 35 miles south of Houston on Galveston Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Affects of the blast were felt five miles away in the cities of Galveston and Clear Lake. It took more than two hours to extinguish the fire, whose plume of smoke was reported to have reached as high as 3,000 to 4,000 feet before the wind carried it out into Galveston Bay.

The blast occurred in the isomerization unit, where octane-boosting gasoline ingredients were made. One of 30 units in the 1,200-acre complex, it had been shut down for maintenance and was in the process of being put back on line when it exploded.

The oil barons keep their refineries operating around the clock for 18 months to five years before taking equipment down for repairs. This unit of the BP operation hadn’t been shut down for maintenance in about two years. “The shutdown periods are kept as brief as possible,” according to the March 26 New York Times, “especially in the past few years when the difference between the cost of crude oil and the value of gasoline and other products has been large, making profits strong.” The day after the deadly disaster, oil prices spiked to $54.84 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The refinery, BP’s largest in the United States and the third-largest in the country, processes 460,000 barrels of crude oil daily. It produces 3 percent of the total gasoline consumed in the United States.

On the day of the explosion Gregory Nelson, a carpenter, was hanging drywall at a local business when he felt his ladder shake. He told the Houston Chronicle that he turned toward the refinery and saw “a big ball of fire, followed by a bigger ball of fire and then a big bang. I saw pipes and debris going up into the air and then black, black thick smoke,” he said.

Galveston County medical examiner Stephen Pustilnik told the media that most of the 15 victims were killed by blunt-force injury from the sheet metal and other materials thrown into the air. DNA testing will be necessary to identify some of those killed, he said, in a process that could take weeks or months. Some of the workers who died in the blast were in a temporary office trailer about 150 yards from the site of the explosion. One of the injured workers, Arturo Verdin, told the Chronicle, “I saw metal coming down. There was no place to hide.” A contract worker who had been at the refinery for about a week, he earned less than $12 an hour and is not sure if he has health insurance.

Over the past seven years, workers have been seriously injured or killed during restart operations at five refineries or chemical plants in the United States. The March 23 explosion was the deadliest in the Houston area since 1990, when 17 workers were killed during a similar “turnaround” at the Arco Chemical Co. in nearby Channelview.

None of the 15 who died in Texas City were employed by BP directly, but by companies it contracted to do the work. They included 11 who worked for Jacobs Engineering or its subsidiary, J. E. Merit Constructors. At the time of the explosion, BP had 3,300 workers at the refinery—1,100 full-time workers organized by Local 4-1 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) and 2,200 workers employed there by contract companies. PACE has sent an accident investigation team to the refinery. Union representatives have said they believe that five of its members are among those seriously injured.

Johnny Elton, a member of the Texas City Metal Trades Council and an operator at a nearby chemical plant, told the Militant there is a declining level of training of those employed in the local oil industry.

“It used to be that the workers doing maintenance and turnaround work had served in apprenticeship programs before getting hired directly by the plants or by contractors,” said Elton. “That’s no longer true. In fact, there are no more apprenticeship programs left in the area.” Other workers agreed and also noted that contractors who come in for turnaround or repair work frequently hire untrained workers.

A PACE member employed by BP told the Militant that a number of the workers who died in the blast should not have been in the area while a dangerous procedure was being performed. “Some of the people were meeting in a trailer next to the unit,” he told us. “We know this is dangerous work, so when there’s the chance of a problem they should have been taken out of the area. They should have been outside the gate, not next to line where product is being introduced.”  
History of unsafe conditions
The BP complex, which was built in 1934 and has been owned by several oil companies over the years, has a long history of death and injury to workers. Two pipefitters were burned to death and a third seriously injured last September when a seal burst on a water pump they were working on, spraying them with superheated water and steam.

British Petroleum has been slapped on the wrist for numerous safety violations. The refinery and its parent company, BP North America, have been fined more than $172,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violations that have occurred during the last 12 months. The company paid $109,500 following the Sept. 2, 2004, deaths of the two pipefitters. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigators have also carried out 75 inspections over the past five years, identifying multiple violations on each occasion.

The refinery also ranks as the eighth-largest polluter in the state. In 2002, it is recorded as having released 5.1 million pounds of pollutants, including chemicals that are known carcinogens. BP has admitted to six different chemicals in the black smoke that followed the fire March 23, but company and state officials have stated that the explosion had a “minimal impact” on air and water quality.

Smaller explosions in refineries in the area are so common and so often minimized that it took two days for investigators to turn their attention to reports that a hydrogen-fueled fire had broken out in the same octane-enhancing unit less than 24 hours before the big explosion on March 23.

Lord John Browne, BP’s chief executive officer, flew to Texas City from London for a press conference the day after the explosion. Asked about the plant’s history of safety problems, he claimed that the safety record at the refinery “has improved enormously,” and that the company always has “safety first in mind.”

“We do not produce day to day just to make a quick buck,” Lord Browne said, while assuring investors that the explosion, though massive, would have only a negligible effect, probably less than 5 percent, on the output of the entire refinery.

Texas City itself was the scene of what has been called the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. In 1947, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in the harbor. The ensuing series of blasts engulfed the chemical and refining plants in the area and spread to the city, which burned for days. The official death count for the disaster was 576 people, and 5,000 were injured.  
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