The workers were meeting in a mobile construction trailer, planning maintenance for another part of the refinery, when the isom unit blew. The ensuing fireball rolled over the flimsy trailer, obliterating it. The explosion erupted while BP employees were restarting the unit after a two-week tune-up. A series of mechanical and monitoring problems caused a geyser of hot, flammable liquid and vapor to back up inside a hundred-foot-tall ventilation stack that is designed to relieve pressure inside the unit, and then overflow and ignite.
Time and specialized reporting from both metro and business reporters would reveal that BP had a history of using Band-Aid fixes to keep Texas City running. Also, the maintenance workers’ very presence on the premises at the time of the blast was suspect. Restarting a refining unit is one of the most dangerous times at a plant, and other energy companies, such as ExxonMobil and Valero, have a policy of sending all nonessential employees home during the process.
The trailer that was incinerated was just 121 feet away from the vent stack that overflowed with boiling liquid, a violation of both BP’s internal policy of putting all trailers at least 350 feet from hazardous equipment and similar industry guidelines. Emergency alarm systems that could have warned workers to evacuate the area never sounded.
Had either the city desk or the business desk been solely responsible for uncovering what went wrong and how BP’s corporate culture was to blame, there would have been tremendous gaps in the Texas City story. It took environmental and energy reporting as well as investigative and legal legwork to ferret out a series of troubling flashpoints:
• That particular unit had a long history of fires and explosions going back more than a decade, including a fire less than twenty-four hours before the blast. The unit was restarted anyway.
• BP leads the nation in refinery fatalities since 1995, with ten times as many deaths as recorded at ExxonMobil, BP’s major U.S.-based competitor.
• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration told plant managers in 1992, thirteen years before the explosion, that the unit’s ventilation stack was out of date and more modern equipment was needed. It was never replaced.
That newsgathering was no small feat. The Texas City blast was the nation’s most serious industrial accident in fifteen years and the first major one after 9/11. Government documents concerning the plant’s operational procedures and safety record that were once easily accessed had vanished into the Homeland Security labyrinth. Again and again, reporters hit brick walls trying to find what had been considered basic public information a few short years ago. I was told many documents had become classified so they could not fall into terrorists’ hands and put the country’s refining and chemical complexes in harm’s way.
It took a small army of journalists to smoke out all this skulduggery. A business reporter, Anne Belli, was dogged in winning the trust of plant insiders, the environmental reporter Dina Cappiello found alternate routes to BP documents, and the investigative reporter Lise Olsen’s vast experience with filing Freedom of Information Act requests helped pry loose damning numbers about BP fatalities and the shockingly small fines BP had paid to federal and state agencies as a result. In the case of one worker who died at BP’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery, OSHA fined the company only $1,625.
There was a time when the Chronicle would not have covered such a story so relentlessly. There used to be an attitude that refineries were dangerous places to work and employees took their chances every day when they punched the clock. But times have changed. I’d like to think the harsh glare of the spotlight the newspaper shined on events at Texas City made a difference. This time around osha fined BP a record $21.4 million after finding more than 300 violations. BP had to set aside more than $1 billion to deal with legal fallout from the explosion and invested even more to overhaul the Texas City plant.
Other costs to BP and its management are harder to quantify.