WASHINGTON, D.C., and BEAUMONT, Texas (PAI) - After years of foot-dragging and contesting federal findings, British Petroleum agreed Aug. 12 to not contest job safety and health violations in the years after the fatal 2005 blast at its Texas City, Texas, refinery. BP will pay a $50.6 million fine, negotiate another $30 million in penalties imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and undertake $500 million worth of repairs and upgrades at the plant.
The Steelworkers, who represent union workers at Texas City - where more than a dozen workers were killed and more than 100 people were injured - welcomed the announcement, said Vice President Gary Beevers, who leads the USW's oil workers.
But in a telephone interview from his Beaumont, Texas, office, Beevers told Press Associates Union News Service that's not enough.
He said BP "gets it" and has worked on safety and made some strides, but the oil industry "has a concrete wall around it" on safety issues, at refineries and at offshore platforms - such as the Deepwater Horizon which exploded, caught fire, and sank in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20. That killed 11 workers and spewed out millions of gallons of oil.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and deputy OSHA Administrator Jordan Barab, a former union safety and health official, announced the settlement with BP in a telephone press conference. The fine is the largest in OSHA's history, they said. And it's for BP's repeated "failure to abate" violations, by not fixing up the plant after the 2005 disaster.
The fatal explosion there was due not just to flaws on individual machines but also to BP's failure to oversee safety in its entire oil production and refining process.
"The size of the penalty reflects BP's disregard for worker safety and also sends a message to all employers: No one should have to sacrifice their life for their job," Solis said.
Under the agreement, BP will pay the $50.6 million fine and work out with OSHA how much of an additional $30 million in fines it should pay for other violations the agency has found on subsequent inspections at Texas City. BP will also spend $500 million to fix "process safety" problems it ignored on 28 separate plant processes.
Texas City had never had a top-to-bottom OSHA "process safety" inspection before the blast, looking not just at the safety of individual machines but at overall safety of entire production lines and manufacturing processes.
Now, under the agreement, the Texas City plant supervisor meets the OSHA area supervisor every month to review progress on repairs, and OSHA gets to inspect any place in the plant at any time. There's a set schedule for improvements, with the threat of more OSHA fines, or court action, if BP flunks again, Barab said.
"At Texas City, BP is accepting an unprecedented level of OSHA oversight," Barab said. "OSHA will have full access to management systems and to verify audits" on safety progress, among other things, he added. So will the Steelworkers, he said.
Beevers praised that, but said the problem isn't just at BP and it isn't just at refineries. Pointing to 13 oil plant fires, 19 dead workers, and 25 injured in April and May - even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster - Beevers said the whole industry is a mess.
But the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's lobby, won't admit there's a safety problem. It counts numbers of violation reports and argues increased reporting - even for small events - shows it pays attention to safety. And Shell, which negotiated the industry's last "pattern" contract with the USW, last month turned the union down flat when the USW asked to reopen the pact to discuss process safety at plants and platforms.
"They certainly showed they're chronic violators of safety," Beevers said.
The Steelworkers have asked Barab, Solis and OSHA administrator Dr. David Michaels to put the oil industry as a whole on OSHA's "worst of the worst" list, along with other high-hazard industries, Beevers added.
"And we need to see OSHA's national compliance program" for bad violators "carried out at every refinery, not just those that don't join OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program," he added. The VPP, instituted by GOP President Bush's OSHA, told firms that if they accepted OSHA safety advice, they could escape its inspections. "It doesn't make sense if you have six plants overall and all but two are exempt, because the others are in VPP. You have a problem," Beevers said.
Another problem Beevers noted is OSHA's fines, which OSHA, the Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO and other unions are lobbying Congress to increase. The penalty against BP is huge because there were so many initial violations and subsequent "failure to abate" violations when BP did not fix the Texas City plant. But the maximum OSHA fine for a single process safety violation is still only $7,000, Beevers said. That's also OSHA's maximum for most other violations, Michaels has told lawmakers.
Photo: Rafael Herrera, second from left, and his wife Magdalena remember their son, Rafael Jr., who was killed in the BP refinery explosion in Texas City five years ago, while being comforted by Paul Platz, a worker who was at the refinery the day of the catastrophe, during a memorial and moment of silence at the site, March 23, 2010, in Texas City, Texas. (AP/Houston Chronicle, Michael Paulsen)