Deal over Texas Refinery Blast Opposed

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Three years ago, an explosion rocked a British Petroleum refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers. A proposed plea deal would see BP fined $50 million in exchange for avoiding an investigation of its safety history. But the deal has critics.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Houston today, prosecutors and lawyers for the oil company BP are in court seeking a plea bargain on charges stemming from the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery. That accident killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. At the federal hearing, the survivors and family members of those who died intend to take the stand and urge U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to reject the agreement. They charge the deal is politically motivated, a slap on the oil industry's wrist, and a slap in their faces.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN: It was a beautiful spring afternoon that day on the Gulf coast. Rigging supervisor Ralph Dean was busy with a forklift, moving a large piece of equipment deep in the heart of BP's massive Texas City refinery. Dean's wife and father-in-law were close by, both working with 18 other people inside a long doublewide trailer that was being used as temporary office space. In quick succession, there were three explosions, the first blew Ralph Dean out of his forklift seat.

Mr. RALPH DEAN (BP Supervisor): I felt a concussion, things started hitting the forklift and my seatbelt caught me, but I looking, as it turned out, back towards the trailer where my wife was. And the trailer had already leaned over from the effects of the second blast and the third blast, just obliterated it, turned into matchsticks.

GOODWYN: The trailer had been placed just 120 feet from a unit that made jet fuel. If the refinery were built today, that unit would have to have a flare to burn off any accidental vapor of liquid overfills. But like many of the refineries along the Texas coast, the BP refinery had been built in the 1930s. Loopholes and federal law allowed its outdated equipment to be grandfathered in over the decades. That day, the unit accidentally overflowed a mixture of high-octane highly flammable liquid and vapors. Instead of being burned off by a flare, it was released into the air and onto the ground.

A nearby pick-up truck, its engine running, was the ignition source for an inferno. In horror, Ralph Dean got off his forklift and ran toward what was left of the trailer.

Mr. DEAN: I got on top of the trailer as best I could. There was nothing left, there was just debris everywhere, unrecognizable debris. I heard a man talking and I recognized his voice, but I couldn't see him, and turns out I was standing on top of him. He was about three feet below the soles of my shoes.

GOODWYN: The man was a colleague who incredibly was using his cell phone to explain their boss what had just happened. Dean dug down with his hands and pulled the man out. Then the already nightmarish situation turned worse. One by one, pick-up trucks parked next to the trailer began to explode.

Mr. DEAN: It threw me head over heels, and the flames were coming over the top of me. I kept digging, but it just got so hot I couldn't stay there anymore, I thought I was going to catch fire.

GOODWYN: Instead of running for his life, Ralph Dean ran to the forklift and drove straight into the burning truck, picked it up and moved it away from the trailer. As he did so, the second vehicle exploded. So Dean moved that one too, then another, and another after that. All along, Dean fought to save his wife, his father-in-law, and the other 18 people buried in the wreckage of the doublewide. It was 15 minutes before help arrived.

When Dean found his father-in-law, he was already dead. But when he dug out his wife, Alyssa, she was alive, barely. Her back, neck, and ribs were broken and her lungs were fried. She would be in a coma for four months. A few days later, Ralph Dean was at his wife's bedside watching the local news when a BP executive appeared on the screen. The manager reassured stockholders, investors, and the general public that the accident in Texas City wasn't going to slow BP down. Dean was enraged.

Mr. DEAN: Just for that quarter he was talking about making billions in profit two weeks after my wife was injured and my father-in-law was killed, nobody should have to listen to that.

Mr. DAVID PERRY (Lawyer): It had a history of prior explosions, prior releases, prior fires.

GOODWYN: David Perry is Ralph Dean's lawyer and he will argue today that BP's criminal conduct deserves far more punishment than three years of probation and a $50 million fine, not with BP clearing more than $20 billion a year in profit. Perry says BP has a long history of promising to improve safety after deadly accidents, but says it's always just talk.

Mr. PERRY: For six years, the local plant management told them over and over again that the plant was dangerous, that it was deteriorated, that it was decrepit, and the BP management in London, instead of providing money to upgrade the plant, actually cut the amount of money that was available to try to keep the plant safe.

GOODWYN: BP's victims are flexing relatively new legal rights that were granted by the Crime Victims Rights Act passed in 2004. Usually that privilege has been used to tearfully explain the terrible personal effects of the crime. But Perry says this kind of broad based and united opposition to a proposed plea agreement is unprecedented.

Mr. PERRY: The maximum is at least $3.2 billion, but the agreed upon fine is only 50 million, one-and-a-half percent of the maximum fine. And this is in a case where upper level management committed the crime by starving the plant of the money that the plant management needed.

GOODWYN: Both British Petroleum and the Justice Department declined repeated request to comment for this story. In court filings, BP and the federal government assert, the accident victims should not have legal standing to interfere with their plea deal. BP says its past safety record and alleged criminal history are irrelevant. The company says it has accepted responsibility. Paid out $1.6 billion in civil claims and renewed its commitment to improving safety.

But another fatal accident at the refinery earlier this month, it's not just the victims of the 2005 explosion who want a word with the judge today.

Ms. NICOLE PENA (Victim's Daughter): I'm very angry because if they say that they put all the safety and precautions in the plant, then my dad would still be here now.

GOODWYN: Nicole Pena is the daughter of 57-year-old Joe Gracia, a 32-year veteran at BP's Texas City refinery. Gracia was the third worker who's died since the 2005 accident. He was killed on January 11th, 2008 after a metal lid exploded off a water filtration unit. That evening, though her father was beyond the living, Pena stood by his hospital bed and told him she was going to fight BP.

Ms. PENA: I made a promise to him when this happened that I was gonna fight this to the end, and I'm not gonna give up. It's not something that I would want anyone to have to go through in this lifetime.

GOODWYN: U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal cannot increase the fine by billions of dollars as the victims want him to, or change the plea agreement in any way. The judge can only approve the deal or not.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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