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Independent Safety Report On BP Due Today

An independent panel is ready to release a much-anticipated report on safety and management at oil giant BP PLC's U.S. operations, an investigation sparked by a deadly blast at a Texas refinery nearly two years ago.

The 11-member panel, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, was to release its report Tuesday on corporate management at BP Products North America. The March 2005 blast at the company's Texas City refinery killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, known as the CSB, urged BP in August 2005 to hire outside experts to look at the company's oversight of safety management systems and make its findings public - similar to the investigation at NASA following the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

The panel, announced in October 2005, has traveled to BP's five U.S. refineries and interviewed hundreds of employees.

"The CSB is pleased this distinguished panel has finished its work," CSB chairwoman Carolyn Merritt said in a statement. "We hope the report's findings will reverberate throughout the worldwide oil and chemical industry in improving safety."

Baker, a senior partner at the Houston-based Baker Botts law firm, was White House chief of staff and treasury secretary in the Reagan administration and secretary of state in the first Bush administration. The release of the BP report was twice delayed because of his work with the Iraq Study Group, which made recommendations to President Bush last month on how to revamp U.S. policy in Iraq.

Its release comes less than a week after London-based BP said Chief Executive John Browne would step down by the end of July, more than a year ahead of schedule.

BP said Friday that Browne, 58, will be succeeded by Tony Hayward, the head of exploration and production, who will assume the task of trying to repair the company's reputation with the public and investors. Problems stem from a series of well-publicized mishaps that include the Texas explosion and last year's giant oil spill in Alaska.

The 2005 explosion has so far cost the company around $2 billion in compensation payouts, repairs and lost profits. BP has settled hundreds of lawsuits related to the accident, putting aside $1.6 billion just to resolve legal disputes.

Based on its investigation, the CSB has criticized BP for its safety systems at Texas City, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, finding the company fostered bad management at the plant and failed to fix problems.

In September 2005, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found BP committed more than 300 willful violations of its rules and fined the company $21.3 million.

A BP report in December 2005 blamed failures by management at the refinery, saying it didn't make safety a priority, tolerated risks and failed to communicate. But BP added it "found no evidence of anyone consciously or intentionally taking actions or decisions that put others at risk."

The CSB has credited BP for cooperating with its investigation, making sweeping changes in how it recognizes potential hazards and hiring the Baker panel.

BP has said it will invest about $1 billion over five years to improve and maintain the Texas City site. BP also operates refineries in California, Indiana, Washington and Ohio.