Workers sift through debris at the BP fa
William Philpott  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Workers sift through debris at the BP facility in Texas City last month. An explosion at the third-biggest oil refinery in the U.S. left 15 people dead.
updated 4/8/2005 2:46:09 PM ET 2005-04-08T18:46:09

Federal investigators 13 years ago warned the Texas City oil refinery where 15 people died in an explosion last month that part of the plant built to allow flammable gases to escape from a ventilation stack could harm workers.

A U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration report obtained by the Houston Chronicle said the agency cited Amoco Oil Co. for using equipment in a way “that allowed toxic gases to vent to the atmosphere ... thus exposing employees to flammable or toxic gases.”

OSHA recommended that Amoco, which owned the plant at the time, set up air monitors or adjust the unit so discharged liquids and vapors went to a flare and burned off. OSHA issued 15 violations and a $50,000 fine, and the agency's records suggest the plant fixed the problem in 1992. The case was settled in 1994 and the citation and fine were later deleted and withdrawn.

The plant took the BP name after the London-based oil company merged with Amoco in 1998.

Witnesses have told investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that just before the blast they saw a “geyser-like” release of liquid and vapor from a 100-foot-tall vent.

CSB investigators questioned why the vent apparently was used to relieve pressure from gas and fluid buildup in the isomerization unit, the heart of the blast site. The unit boosts octane levels in gasoline.

The equipment noted in OSHA's 1992 report for allowing flammable and toxic gases to be released included a splitter, which is among equipment under scrutiny in the probe of the March 23 explosion that also injured more than 100 people.

BP spokesman Bill Stephens told the Chronicle that the ventilation stack noted in the OSHA report and a collection tank at its base — known as the blow-down drum — are elements of an emergency pressure relief system designed to vent gases and redirect liquids.

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