When Beats Collide

When an oil refinery blew, reporters at The Houston Chronicle got a lesson in synergy.

Virtually every story can be boiled down to one thing: money. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who’s successfully lobbying for it? Who’s disenfranchised and deserves more of it? Economics is at the heart of most stories worth reporting, and yet it is the one subject journalists, collectively, are rarely expected to understand with any depth.

In journalism school, professors admonish us to “follow the money,” but that adage seems tailored only for obvious stories about campaign funding or sweetheart zoning deals. In my time as a reporter for The Houston Chronicle, my paper’s pages have been filled with features on topics that, at first blush, don’t necessarily appear to be economic in nature. Hurricane Katrina evacuees and skyrocketing crime. The rise of the Minute Men and border patrol issues. The war in Iraq and how national security is tied to oil. As a profession, we’re great at politics and culture wars so we approach a lot of news from those angles. It’s an easier approach, but it ignores the fact that politics and culture are inextricably linked with economics. When I look at newspapers with a critical eye, I am often left wondering, “Where’s the money?” Even the most masterly narratives can fall flat when economic issues are conspicuously absent or, worse, given superficial treatment.

I saw just how much more comprehensive coverage can be when metro reporters and business writers collaborated two years ago after an explosion ripped through BP’s Texas City refinery, the nation’s third largest, killing fifteen people and injuring 170.

In the moments after the blast, editors treated the story as a standard industrial catastrophe. Reporters rushed to the scene and to local hospitals to gather information on the blaze, the casualties, and the possibility a toxic cloud would descend onto the community. It didn’t take long to realize, though, that Texas City would be a much longer, more arduous reporting slog, requiring expertise in everything from corporate finance to engineering to government regulation. After the initial heartrending stories of courageous workers trying to rescue their colleagues and broken families trying to plan so many funerals, Chronicle reporters would have to get to the bottom of what exactly went wrong and why. Was this truly an accident, or just an accident waiting to happen?

I remember vividly the first editorial meeting of the Texas City reporting team. George Haj, our deputy managing editor of news, said metro and business reporters would work together on this story like never before. It was a concept that had received a lot of lip service in the newsroom but had never been put to the test on a grand scale. From the start, I could see why the wall between
sections had not come down easily. Some reporters on the metro and business desks looked at the world in fundamentally different ways.

Right off the bat, one metro reporter said labor union officials were talking off the record, blaming the blow-up on shoddy work by contract employees. That reporter thought the focus of all stories to come was obvious—the ills of outsourcing. To the business reporting contingent at the table, that was stereotypical liberal media bias writ large.

I noted that any contract work performed at the site would have had to be inspected and signed off on by BP’s own plant managers, who were probably part of the union themselves, so that argument didn’t wash with me. This was BP’s facility, run by BP engineers, creating gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel that would be sold and booked on BP’s balance sheet. Whatever happened was bound to be a more complicated problem than the well-worn union-nonunion employee argument.

As it turned out, the fifteen dead were not BP employees but contract workers. And they had absolutely nothing to do with the explosion, which occurred in the isomerization unit, where octane-boosting gasoline ingredients are created.

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.

Chairman Lord John Browne announced in January that he would be stepping down from the helm of BP this summer, eighteen months earlier than he had planned. A few days later, a 300-page report from an independent panel investigating BP—and run by former Secretary of State James Baker III—criticized a “run until it breaks” mentality at the company, which has “a false sense of confidence” about safety.

Since Texas City, there have been other collaborations between the business and metro desks at the Chronicle, most notably during the trials of Enron’s top brass. A team of reporters produced a continuously updated blog of all the courtroom action—deciphering the finer points of Enron’s financial woes—in addition to traditional daily and enterprise pieces.

We’re too turf-conscious in journalism. We talk a good game about the shrinking world and the interconnected nature of things, but have a hard time applying that to our own newsrooms. Almost every story is, in some way, a business story. By ignoring this fact in favor of some artificial notion of “that’s your beat, this is mine,” we do our readers a disservice.

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Lynn J. Cook , an energy writer for The Houston Chronicle, was one of this year’s Knight Bagehot fellows, studying finance and economics at the Columbia Business School.