TEXAS CITY, Texas — “They are killing people for money,” a retired union carpenter told me as I was standing in front of the British Petroleum refinery plant here, March 26.
I drove the 60 miles from Houston to see firsthand the situation in this town, famous for its sprawling refineries, after a devastating March 23 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured 100 other workers and nearby residents. The blast sent clouds of thick black smoke into the air and rattled windows in Galveston, 20 miles across the bay.
Across the street from the refinery, flowers and wreaths honored the dead workers. In the background, a huge banner at the refinery entrance read, “Safety first — just do it!” The air pollution was awful, making it difficult to breathe. My eyes were stinging.
The carpenter was outraged by the workers’ deaths. While the plant operators are secured within an area that is “bomb proof” (he knows because he worked on construction at the plant), the workers are left exposed to tremendous risk, he said.
He was outraged by the huge multinational corporation’s indifference to workers and the community. He said, “You’re a concerned citizen and you drove all the way down here from Houston, but this is what we have to live with every day.”
Corporations like BP are managed from other countries and local workers and the community have little input into the functioning of the plant or its impact on the community, he said. This allows the company to violate Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules without fear of consequences.
The Texas City refinery is the third largest refinery in the U.S., processing 433,000 barrels of oil a day, 3 percent of the country’s gasoline supply.
It is also the eighth largest polluter in Texas and has a terrible safety record. Approximately 30,000 people live within a three-mile radius of the plant.
The state’s Republican governor, Rick Perry, in a speech to the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce, callously declared, “There are no safety issues that have been brought to our attention.” But according to Jeff Darby, an OSHA inspector and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2139, there have been two other serious accidents at BP’s Texas City plant within the last year.
In March 2004, workers escaped injury when furnace valves ruptured, causing a series of explosions. BP was fined $63,000 for 14 safety violations related to those explosions.
In September, two workers died when a valve ruptured, scalding the two with 500-degree steam. BP was fined $110,000.
The latest tragedy at BP was the worst accident at a U.S. refinery or chemical plant in 15 years. In 1990, a blast at an Arco Chemical plant in Channelview, Texas, killed 17 workers.
Most of the 1,800 BP workers at the Texas City refinery are members of the Pipefitters Union or Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Local 4-1 (PACE). PACE sent a team to investigate the explosion.
The 15 workers killed were among 2,200 nonunion contract employees on site when the blast occurred. They were finishing maintenance work on the refinery’s isomerization unit, which increases the octane level of gasoline.
Among those killed was Linda Rowe, 47, of Hornbeck, La. According to news reports, she was working in a tool room when she heard the initial explosion. When she ran outside to help her husband, James, who was working near the explosion, she was caught in a second blast. James was also killed.
Use of nonunion contractors helps corporations enlarge their profits, but at a price in life and limb. Allan Jamail, an official with Pipefitters Union Local 211 in Houston, told The New York Times that refineries across Texas have become more dangerous as companies have increasingly used nonunion contractors to do difficult construction and maintenance work. Nonunion workers “aren’t as well-trained and did not have the job security to raise safety concerns with managers,” he said.
BP’s group chief executive, John Browne, flew in from London to hold a press conference in Texas City the day after the explosion. Browne claimed BP would investigate the accident and “make sure this never happens again.”
But OSHA’s Houston south area director, Charles Williams, commented, “BP North America has years of experience in handling hazardous materials. If OSHA standards had been followed, this tragic loss of life might have been avoided.”
Not inclined to miss an opportunity to maximize profits, major oil producers did not let the ink dry on the news stories before they announced major increases in oil and gas prices.
My carpenter acquaintance said he and many others in Texas City felt helpless and hopeless to change the situation.
When I commented that one group cannot do much to change things, but if we all stand together we can, he beamed broadly. Then he grabbed my pen and said passionately, “Put this pen to work for us.”
Jeremy Ryan contributed to this story.