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BP may face criminal probe in fatal blast

BP Plc may face a U.S. criminal probe into the March explosion that killed 15 workers at its giant Texas refinery, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday.
/ Source: Reuters

BP Plc may face a U.S. criminal probe into the March explosion that killed 15 workers at its giant Texas refinery, the U.S. Department of Labor said Friday.

BP earlier Friday issued the final report of its internal investigation into the March 23 blast that also injured 170 people at the refinery in Texas City, Texas.

The explosion occurred when a hydrocarbon vapor cloud released by an octane-enhancing unit being restarted at the refinery was ignited, possibly by an idling pick-up truck.

The blast rattled buildings as far as five miles away.

“A verbal referral has been made to the Department of Justice,” said Alan Belsky, a Labor Department spokesman. “It is now up to the Department of Justice to decide whether or not to pursue it.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

A company spokesman said BP had no comment on the possible criminal probe.

The London-based oil major reiterated in its Friday statement accompanying the final report that it has “accepted responsibility for the March 23rd explosion and for the management system failures and employee mistakes which contributed to or caused the explosion.”

The United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the BP refinery, said in a statement it supports the Labor Department’s decision to refer the case to the Justice Department.

“The executive summary in the (BP) report makes it clear that the accident wasn’t caused by a few plant operators but by safety management failures extending over many years,” the union said.

The Labor Department recommendation is the result of a U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigation into the explosion which found more than 300 willful violations of health and safety standards at the refinery.

Willful violations are defined as those committed with an intentional disregard or indifference to OSHA regulations.

BP agreed in September to pay a fine of $21.3 million to OSHA.

In the report, BP continues to point to failures by workers to follow correct procedures in starting up the octane-enhancing unit as the critical factor that led to the explosion.

“Although the startup procedure was not fully up to date, if the procedure had been followed, or if different intervention had been made earlier, this incident would not have occurred.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has said the unit’s startup should not have been attempted because gauges and safety alarms were not functioning.

BP acknowledges non-functioning gauges and alarms on the unit, but in the final report it said there were enough indications of problems to have led workers to take action that would have prevented the blast.

The safety board, in a preliminary report issued in October, also said temporary work trailers should not have been located close to processing equipment at the Texas City refinery.

BP said in its final report that trailer location “increased the severity of the incident.”

All of the workers killed were working in the trailers.

BP has reached financial settlements with most of the survivors of those killed and with many of the injured. Several lawsuits, however, are still pending.

BP has set aside $700 million to compensate victims of the blast.

Also on Friday, BP said it plans to spend $1 billion over five years at the Texas City refinery.

Safety improvements are included with the modernization program that is intended to ”secure the long-term future of the refinery.”