- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

HOUSTON (AP) — The U.S. agency responsible for worker safety failed to inspect plants with enough care and frequency to prevent an accident such as the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 persons and injured 170, a government report said yesterday.

The final report on the nation’s worst industrial accident since 1990 also blamed BP for cost cutting that left the plant vulnerable.

In a 335-page report, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said that although the Texas City plant had had several fatal accidents in the past 30 years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had done only one process safety-management inspection at the refinery — in 1998.

The report said that the agency made other, unplanned inspections after accidents, complaints or referrals but that those visits were typically narrower and shorter than planned inspections.

“OSHA’s national focus on inspecting facilities with high injury rates, while important, has resulted in reduced attention to preventing less frequent, but catastrophic, process safety incidents such as the one at Texas City,” the report said.

Nationally, the board found that OSHA had done few inspections between 1995 and 2005. Those types of inspections are supposed to ensure compliance with OSHA’s process safety management standard and prevent disasters such as explosions.

Don Holmstrom, the lead investigator of the Texas City blast, said the investigation showed OSHA did only nine such inspections in targeted industries over the 10-year period and none in the refining sector.

Mr. Holmstrom said, “Available evidence indicates that OSHA has an insufficient number of qualified inspectors to enforce the [process safety management] standard at oil and chemical facilities.”

An OSHA spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment.

BP said yesterday that it has accepted responsibility for the accident, worked diligently to provide fair compensation to those injured and to families of those who died, and cooperated fully with the board.

“Notwithstanding the company’s strong disagreement with some of the content of the CSB report, particularly many of the findings and conclusions, BP will give full and careful consideration to CSB’s recommendations in conjunction with the many activities already under way to improve process safety management,” the company said.

The board clearly pointed a finger at London-based BP for causing the explosion, noting in particular that “cost-cutting in the 1990s by Amoco and then BP left the Texas City refinery vulnerable to a catastrophe.”

BP acquired the refinery when it merged with Amoco in 1998. Soon after, the report said, BP ordered a 25 percent, across-the-budget cut in fixed spending at its refineries. In a preliminary investigation of the accident released in October 2005, the board said the Texas City plant fostered a culture of bad management and failed to recognize and correct problems.

The Texas City explosion occurred when part of the plant’s isomerization unit, which boosts the level of octane in gasoline, overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons. A geyser of flammable liquid and vapor ignited as the unit started up. Alarms and gauges that should have warned of the overfilling equipment failed to work at the plant, about 40 miles southeast of Houston.

The unit had a history of problems and was not hooked up to a flare system that burns off vapor and could have prevented or minimized the accident, the board said.

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