ProPublica and Frontline with a Save on BP

Another giant toxic emission from the oil giant goes undernoticed until now

That one almost slipped through the cracks.

A month ago, the Galveston Daily News’s T.J. Aulds broke a big story on how BP’s Texas City refinery—you know, the one that blew up and killed fifteen people a few years ago—released hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants (including the carcinogen benzene) into the air in the weeks before the Gulf oil catastrophe.

But the rest of the press—other than a couple of mentions on MSNBC—almost completely missed the story, which the Daily News found with bread-and-butter reporting on filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

It’s hard to imagine how this near-miss happened with the amount of journalistic firepower that’s been brought to bear on BP in the last ten weeks. It doesn’t make me feel good about what goes unreported or underrepored when a company or issue isn’t already dominant news.

So ProPublica and Frontline deserve a lot of credit for circling back around to this one (and also for nodding to the Daily News for the scoop), and they do a great job of placing it in the context of what we now know about how BP operates.

Here’s what the Daily News reported on June 5:

…BP estimated 36,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 17,000 pounds of benzene were released in the 40 days. State law requires 10 pounds or more of benzene and 200 pounds or more of nitrogen oxide during a 24-hour period must be reported through the commission’s air emissions database.

Benzene is a carcinogen naturally found in oil that has been linked to some forms of cancer, according to U.S. Health and Human Services records. Nitrogen oxides react to sunlight to form ozone and can damage lung tissue and cause respiratory problems.

ProPublica/Frontline expand on this to show how the release is more evidence of BP’s toxic corporate culture. Here’s the nut graph:

But a look at BP’s record in running the Texas City refinery adds to the mounting evidence that the company’s corporate culture favors production and profit margins over safety and the environment. The 40-day release echoes in several notable ways the runaway spill in the Gulf. BP officials initially underestimated the problem and took steps in the days leading up to the incident to reduce costs and keep the refinery online.

Former workers and industry experts say BP’s handling of the recent release of chemicals was typical of the plant’s and company’s operating practices.

It sure sounds like it, from what we know from excellent work ProPublica, The Wall Street Journal and others have done on the company’s rotten culture.

The two also report that the Texas attorney general is already suing BP for “‘poor operating and maintenance practices’ that caused an ‘egregious amount of emissions.’” That’s critical context.

I also like that ProPublica and Frontline even manage to drop in a bit of media criticism here:

The unit was never completely shut down, and if it would have been, the event probably would have received more attention. Any reduction in production for even as little as 24 hours is considered sufficiently important to be reported in the financial press to investors and others.

In other words, turn off the oil spigot for a day and get headlines. Pump benzene into the air for 40 days and nearly skate by undisturbed by the press. You can bet that BP understands this.

It’s a good thing that BP turned itself in on this incident, but why do we depend on chemical companies to self-report incidents like this? How does the monitoring work at giant plants like Texas City? How many go unreported?

And for the press: While we applaud the work by the Galveston Daily News, ProPublica, and Frontline, how did this story nearly slip through the cracks at a time when BP is under such incredible scrutiny?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.