Apr 4, 2005
On March 23, a tremendous explosion at the BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 workers and injured more than 100, many of them seriously. The section of the refinery used to boost octane had been shut down for two weeks in a "turnaround" to change the catalyst and was being brought back on stream when the explosion occurred. Most major accidents at refineries happen during turnarounds when operations are changing.
Before the smoke had cleared, the price of oil went up in reaction to the explosion, even though only the one section was destroyed, and the company kept the rest of the massive refinery operating. But that didn't matter to speculators who saw a chance to profit from the tragedy.
Even though the exact cause of the explosion has still not been confirmed, witnesses saw a contractor's diesel truck idling at the bottom of the unit. The engine began to rev loudly as flammable gas entered its air intake, but the driver was unable to shut off the engine, which may have ignited the explosion.
The 15 workers who died were employed by an outside contractor, hired to carry out the "turnaround." Ordinarily, contract workers know less about a work site than regular workers, since they are not there all the time. This is particularly serious in the case of a refinery, which can offer multiple dangers.
And this was a very dangerous refinery. The very day of the explosion, the company was in court about a worker who had been killed in a September 2004 accident. He and another worker were burned to death by superheated water. The company was fined $109,500 for "serious" violations of OSHA standards. The company was still contesting that fine on March 23 when the 15 were killed.
The company was also fined $63,000 in March 2004 for another explosion. The fine was for 14 serious safety violations. The company appealed, so OSHA reduced that fine to $13,000.
BP has no lack of money with which it could make conditions safe. Last February it announced that its profits after taxes were 16 billion dollars, its highest ever. Instead of devoting that 16 billion dollars to upgrading safety at facilities with bad records, the company announced that it hoped to pay out 23 billion dollars in dividends and stock buyouts this year and next.
The oil companies obviously don't worry about being penalized for putting their workers and the population around the refineries in danger. They know the State of Texas won't charge them with murder. And OSHA has shown repeatedly that it will protect company profits, imposing only disgustingly low fines.
Fifteen workers have just died, and more will die in the future, if the workers leave these companies to pursue business as usual and depend on OSHA to monitor safety.