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BP's Wretched Safety Record: What Will It Take to Change?

Last October, I went to Texas to research the 2005 accident at BP's Texas City refinery. At the time, it was the worst fatality that the oil industry had experienced in decades and, although it had faded from public view, feelings about it within the Texas oil community still ran deep. I was interested in it because I was working on a new book, Willful Blindness, about how and why we ignore the biggest threats that stare us in the face. It was my contention, then and now, that the greatest dangers we face aren't secret, hidden or hard to see; they're there where everyone can see them -- it's just that no one is willing to acknowledge or deal with them.

BP was a perfect case in point. Studying the 2005 explosion at Texas City taught me a great deal about the company; little did I know that I wasn't just studying its past, I was looking into its future. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has all the hallmarks of Texas City Part II. For years, BP had had warnings that its Texas City refinery was dangerous. Reports from consultants cited employees who complained that repairs weren't made, that process safety wasn't appreciated or taken seriously. One employee memorably said that when he drove through the gates each morning, he wondered if that was the day he was going to die. That the Texas City refinery was dangerous was not secret or hard to see. Everyone knew it.

When I went to Texas City in 2009 and talked there to survivors of the tragedy, everyone told me that there were bound to be more accidents in the future. No one believed lessons had been learned. No one believed that BP had learned about safety or that their attitude to human life had changed. After all, each year one more person at the site had died. No one believed BP cared, not least because there isn't even a memorial to the dead at the refinery. People who wanted to forget could, and did. Those who couldn't forget were doomed to feel alone. I did not meet a single employee who believed BP had changed enough to prevent future accidents.

After the explosion, BP had made a deal with the Department of Justice, paying a $50 million fine to avoid criminal charges for violations of the Clean Air Act related to the fatal explosions. But that deal was contingent on BP fulfilling its settlement agreement with OSHA -- something it still has yet to do. In October 2009, the corporation still faced 439 outstanding safety violations that it continued to dispute. "We don't need to see the loss of another life there," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said at the time. "Our motto is we would like to see people go to work and be able to go home to their families."

It's a noble ambition, but the fines are still outstanding. So as we watch the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico unfold, the questions that must be asked now are:

  • When will it be safe for men and women, employees and contractors, to work on BP sites? Since BP still hasn't addressed so many issues at Texas City, what confidence can anyone have that they will be more focused on safety in the Gulf of Mexico?
  • What comfort can the citizens of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida have that any fines levied against BP will ever be paid? After years of legal wrangling, the Texas City debt is still outstanding.
  • If the lessons from Texas have gone unheeded, what difference can a change of management at BP make? After Texas City, the management changed but not, apparently, enough.
Only one important thing has changed since the Texas City refinery explosion. After that accident, few Texas law firms were prepared to take on an oil major. Attorney Brent Coon took on the victims' case because, as he says, he's a big game hunter. At times he felt alone, and at all times he felt like David fighting a Goliath. But he persevered, winning sizable awards for his clients. Coon is preparing to take on BP again, but by now he knows his opponent better than anyone -- and this time he is unlikely to be alone.