TEXAS CITY — BP’s operations in the United States have the worst safety record in the industry, according to a consumer advocacy group that wants tons of dangerous acid removed from the energy giant’s Texas City refinery.
The Texas Public Interest Research Group, which last year released a report on accidents ranging from small oil spills to explosions at U.S. refineries and chemical plants, is calling for the removal and ban of hydrofluoric acid at the company’s Texas City refinery and other facilities across the nation.
The Austin-based advocacy group, in a 2004 analysis, said BP’s U.S. chemical plants and refineries had more than 3,565 accidents since 1990. That makes the London-based company No. 1 in accidents in the nation, the advocacy group said.
Last week’s explosion at BP’s Texas City oil refinery, which killed 15 people and wounded nearly 100 more, has bolstered the advocacy group’s longtime effort to replace the use of hydrofluoric acid, one of the strongest and most corrosive acids known, with a safer alternative at refineries and plants in Texas. Hydrofluoric acid is used to refine gasoline.
BP officials declined Friday to immediately respond to the advocacy group’s assertions, saying the company’s focus was on families affected by the deadly disaster.
“Our focus needs to stay with the families and the situation,” said Marti Gazzier, a BP spokeswoman.
Following Wednesday’s explosion, the consumer group called for the energy giant to remove 800,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid from its Texas City refinery.
Burns To Skin
If released from a plant, hydrofluoric acid can form an aerosol cloud over surrounding neighborhood, which can cause skin and deep tissue burns, serious bone damage and death by burns to skin, tissue and lungs.
An estimated 550,000 people live within the vulnerability zone of the BP site in Texas City, the group said.
In 1987, a pressurized storage tank was ruptured at the Marathon Petroleum Co.’s Texas City facility, releasing 6,600 gallons of hydrofluoric acid and sending 1,200 people to the hospital with lung and skin disorders. Another 3,000 people were evacuated from the city.
There have been no reports that hydrofluoric acid was released during the refinery explosion.
Last week, BP reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a state regulatory agency, that the smoke from Wednesday’s refinery fire contained six chemicals, including 10 pounds of benzene, 5,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, the gasoline components of heptane, hexane, pentene and pentane. The explosion also caused the release of 100 pounds of nitrogen oxide and 100 pounds of nitrogen dioxide, according to state documents.
After the explosion, BP officials said they were monitoring air quality and didn’t detect any air hazards in the nearby community caused by the explosion. The company said it would continue to monitor the air.
The company on Friday confirmed that a small fire broke out at an oil refinery the day before the deadly blast.
BP said a valve on a furnace line caught fire Tuesday in a part of the plant that boosted the octane level of gasoline. The fire was extinguished within seconds, say officials. It was unclear Friday whether it was related to Wednesday’s fatal events.
Federal officials gathered at the Fifth Avenue South plant Friday to gather evidence and interview employees at the nation’s third-largest refinery.
BP has reported three Texas City accidents in a year — two of them deadly.
Last week’s explosion occurred just hours after BP met in a Galveston court with attorneys representing the family of a man who died in a September accident at the Texas City plant.
Earlier this month, in the same case, BP’s Texas City refinery was fined $109,005 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the September pipeline rupture that killed two workers and severely injured a third.
The government fined BP $63,000 following an investigation into a March 30, 2004, explosion, in which no one was injured.
BP won’t speculate on what caused the accident, said Hugh Depland, a spokesman. The company also won’t conduct an investigation with preconceived notions, Depland said.
Federal officials have ruled out terrorism. The company will bring in BP employees that weren’t involved in the damaged unit’s operations.
“We don’t want to speculate until we know what the data tell us,” he said. “We want to bring in fresh eyes.”
In a 2004 report, Texas Public Interest Research Group analyzed the history of accidents at facilities that use Responsible Care, a voluntary environmental and safety improvement program established in 1988 by the trade group the American Chemistry Council. A third-party audit is meant to ensure companies are accurately reporting incidents in their refineries and plants.
The industry has said the Responsible Care program has resulted in significant reductions in chemical releases into the air, land and water and made major improvements in workplace and community safety.
Texas Public Interest Research Group said that between 1990 and 2003, there was no downward trend in the number of accidents at chemical plants and refineries that have used the voluntary program.
The group also is calling for mandatory safety standards.
In the report, the advocacy group analyzed accident data compiled by the National Response Center, the sole national point of contact for reporting oil and chemical discharges into the environment. The group looked only at American Chemistry Council members, who are required to use the Responsible Care program.
“The refining and chemical industry’s so-called Responsible Care program lets the fox guard the chicken coop,” said Stephanie Carter, field organizer with the advocacy group. “Oil refineries and chemical plants should take action to protect the public immediately and not wait for another catastrophe to happen. They need to act now to switch to safer alternatives.”
While some groups are calling for tougher regulations for the chemical plant and refinery operators, some industry observers say laws already tough.