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Citizens League for Environmental Action Now
720 N. Post Oak Rd., Ste. 265, Houston, TX 77024
phone: (713) 524-3000 · email: infoATcleanhouston.org

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BP Texas City Fatal Explosion: Another look at how it could have been prevented
by
Vicki Wolf, October 2008

Fifteen people were killed and almost 200 injured on March 23, 2005 when a bizarre series of events involving start-up of the isomerization (ISOM) unit led to explosions and fire at the BP (British Petroleum) Texas City plant. The raffinate splitter involved in the accident is a 164-foot tall tower that distills highly flammable hydrocarbons, such as pentane and hexane, in order to increase the octane rating of gasoline.

The case is closed and most of the lawsuits have been settled. BP has made significant safety and environmental improvements since the accident. But Jim Tarr, chemical engineer and president of Stone Lions Environmental Corporation, who was an expert witness in this case, says the whole story has not been told. In 1972, Tarr was the first engineer hired at the Houston area office by Texas Air Control Board (TACB), now Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Since then he has investigated many environmental cases. Tarr says diligence on the part of the TCEQ might have prevented the fatal explosion.

According to Tarr, one key safety feature and integral part of the distillation column, the F-20 blowdown drum and stack, was never reported or discovered by TCEQ through many years and a series of permit application reviews related to the BP Texas City refinery. Flooding of the blowdown drum and failure of its alarm to sound was a major factor in the explosion.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted an extensive investigation and found many problems with BP’s staff management and risk management. As a result, BP’s chief executive officer resigned, and the Texas City plant manager and several executives were terminated. Investigations also found multiple safety issues including the malfunction of key process equipment and alarm systems.

“Thorough implementation of existing OSHA and EPA process safety rules would have prevented a number of tragic accidents, including the one at Texas City,” Carolyn Merritt, CSB board chair, told a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in testimony about CSB’s findings in the investigation of the BP Texas City accident. However, there was no mention of the role that state regulation of the petrochemical industry might have played in preventing this accident.

Reports from investigations reveal that the F-20 blowdown drum was a significant factor among many system and human failures to recognize and respond to the emergency the day of the explosion. BP’s Fatal Accident Investigation Report states, “The likelihood of this incident could have been reduced by discontinuing the use of the F-20 blowdown stack for light end hydrocarbon service and installing inherently safer options when they were available.”

The CSB report also describes how the blowdown drum was involved in the accident: “Material vented through the pressure-relief valves flows to a blowdown drum. The blowdown drum vents directly to the atmosphere through a 114-foot-tall stack. This vent system was of an antiquated design: it was originally installed in the 1950s, and it had never been tied in to a flare system to safely combust flammable vapors released from the process.” Records show that the high-level alarm on the blowdown drum did not go off during the time the drum was flooding with liquid released from the splitter tower. The report states that “Had the alarm sounded properly as the blowdown drum was flooding, it could have alerted operators to the emergency situation.”

We were unable to get an interview with a TCEQ permit reviewer, but Terry Clawson, TCEQ media relations manager, was willing to answer questions submitted by email.

In answer to the question, “How are environmental hazards for workers and the public assessed?” Clawson explained: “The TCEQ does not have jurisdiction if the context of the question concerns on-site worker safety (this authority resides with other agencies, including OSHA). However, the environmental health impacts are considered in the context of a permit application review. The TCEQ reviews all emissions of a contaminant from stationary emission sources at a site to assess off-property impacts.”

When asked about the requirement for updating equipment, Clawson replied, “Generally, permit review includes evaluation of best available control technology (BACT) for new facilities or modifications of existing facilities in accordance with the Federal/Texas Clean Air Acts. If the applicant does not construct or modify an existing facility within specified time periods, they can request an extension. If the extension is granted the applicant may be required to 'update' control equipment.”

According to Tarr, in the normal operation of the ISOM Unit at the BP Texas City refinery, process emissions are created that get directed to the blowdown drum, which are then vented directly to the atmosphere. In 1975 AMOCO, now part of BP, filed a construction permit application with the Texas Air Control Board (TACB) related to the construction of the raffinate splitter unit, which ultimately was incorporated into the ISOM unit. At that point, the company was obligated to include air pollution details related to the F-20 blowdown drum. Tarr says they did not do that. “They withheld that information even though they knew that they had an obligation to reveal it,” he adds.

Over the next three decades, various situations arose that also required BP to reveal air pollution details related to the F-20 blowdown drum. They continued to hide the air emission situation from the regulatory agency for the next 30 years. “It’s my opinion that they did that knowing full well that they had an obligation to explain it to the TCEQ, and they never did,” Tarr says.

Tarr agrees with the BP and CSB investigators who reported that primary responsibility for the fatal Texas City refinery explosion rests with BP. “But there is a collateral responsibility that rests with TCEQ, and the people who live and pay taxes in the State of Texas need to understand that,” he says.

“You have a vessel equipped with a 115 foot stack, and they never found out that it was a part of the refinery unit in Texas City,” Tarr says with amazement. “This represents tremendous failure on the part of BP. It also represents failure on the part of TCEQ. Had the TCEQ been doing their job in a competent manner, it is quite possible that the explosion would not have occurred on March 23, 2005, and the 15 people killed on that day might still be alive.”

With many lessons learned from the accident, BP promised to invest in safety improvements at the refinery. Elimination of 11 blow down drums and installation of three new flares were included in the improvements, according to Michael Marr, Director of External Affairs at the BP Texas City Refinery, BP Texas City. “The company has invested more than $1 billion and more than 55 million workers hours of effort in the reconstruction of the facility. We have removed 200 trailers and hundreds of non-essential personnel from process areas, eliminated 11 blow down stacks and installed three new flares,” Marr says.

 



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Citizens League for Environmental Action Now
720 N. Post Oak Rd., Ste. 265, Houston, TX 77024
phone: (713) 524-3000 · email: infoATcleanhouston.org

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