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BP Faces Massive Lawsuit Over Texas City Refinery Benzene Emissions

Aug 6, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

BP is facing a massive class action lawsuit over its Texas City refinery. According to a Houston Chronicle report, the lawsuit was sparked by the revelation that the BP Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene fumes between April 6 and May 16 of this year.

The $10 billion class action lawsuit alleges the release of 500,000 pounds of chemicals – including 17,000 pounds of benzene – has jeopardized the health and property values of people who live and work in the area, the Chronicle said. This week, more than 3,400 people lined up at one information center to sign on to the lawsuit. Hundreds have turned out at similar town hall meetings.

Dozens of people the Chronicle interviewed complained of allergic reactions, sinus infections, headaches, nosebleeds and other symptoms consistent with benzene exposure.

According to the Chronicle report, the trouble started April 6, when BP said a fire compromised a seal on an ultracracker’s hydrogen compressor. The malfunction forced the company to flare off gases. It reported the “emissions event” to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality the following day. As it worked to fix the unit over the next 40 days, the plant released 538,000 pounds of pollutants into the air, BP told regulators.

BP said it operated the ultracracker at minimal capacity, but critics say it should have been shut off entirely.

Information about the release wasn’t made public until BP submitted a final incident report to regulators June 4, the Chronicle said. Even then, outside of Texas City, the benzene incident was overshadowed by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cited BP for an “excessive release” and, two weeks ago, referred its findings to the state attorney general for possible litigation, the Chronicle said.

BP has had problems, to say the least, at the Texas City refinery in the past. Last year, the company was fined $87 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to correct safety violations there. In March 2005, an explosion and fire at Texas City killed 15 workers.

The fine was the largest in OSHA’s history. OSHA said BP hadn’t made safety improvements promised in a settlement reached with safety inspectors in September 2005. According to The Wall Street Journal report published at the time, an OSHA official said last year that BP still had a “serious systemic safety problem,” both at Texas City and across the company. The company denies OSHA’s claims, and a hearing is scheduled for later this month.

According to the Houston Chronicle, BP is still on federal probation for a felony environmental conviction related to the 2005 explosion, which also caused a massive release of benzene and other toxins.

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