In the history of accidents, the March 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City, Tex., oil refinery might have been another Exxon Valdez — a catastrophe that changed the way we perceive and regulate the industry. But the BP disaster hasn’t captured the public’s imagination the way the 1989 Alaska oil spill did, even though the explosion killed 15 people and injured 180 more. Yesterday James Baker, the fix-it man for both the Iraq war and BP’s safety record, released a 374-page report on how BP’s corporate culture contributed to the disaster.
The findings were harsh — pointing fingers at people at the highest levels of the company for not paying enough attention to safety — and they helped persuade John Browne, BP’s chief executive, who once was considered a model oil company executive, to resign. But the soul searching should go way beyond Browne.
Most of us speed past refineries, with their steel towers and scary flares, never stopping to consider what goes on inside. Daily, refinery employees manage high pressures and volatile chemicals while pumping out millions of gallons of gasoline. If you want to see what it looks like when those systems are dangerously out of balance, watch this video re-enactment of the Texas City disaster, made by the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. It shows a minute-by-minute reconstruction of flammable liquids overwhelming the plant’s safety devices and eventually blowing up.
“What BP experienced was a perfect storm where aging infrastructure, overzealous cost-cutting, inadequate design and risk blindness all converged,” said Carolyn W. Merritt, chairwoman of the investigation board at a news conference in late October, cautioning that no company should consider itself immune from this kind of disaster.
That statement wouldn’t surprise the residents of Texas, who refine more than a quarter of America’s gasoline and are the largest onshore producers of both petroleum and natural gas. If you use gasoline, you owe Texas a debt of gratitude for shouldering so much of the burden of pollution and the risk of handling dangerous chemicals and fuels.
Harris County, which includes Houston, reports more toxic releases to the Environmental Protection Agency than any other county in the United States. The region along the Gulf Coast is home to 250 petrochemical plants, and in Houston alone, an estimated 78,000 kids go to school within two miles of a refinery or chemical plant. Between 1995 and 2005, 27 of the 48 Americans who died in accidents at major refineries were from Texas. Oil provides a paycheck for many Texas families, but refineries also pollute their air and water, and cause them to worry about their safety.