HOUSTON — BP Products North America Inc. has been fined a record $21 million for health and safety violations as a result of a March 23 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 at its Texas City, Texas, plant, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The penalty was almost twice the previous record fine at the plant.

However, the Houston Chronicle reports that union officials were outraged about OSHA’s secret negotiations with BP, which “left the public in the dark about the full scope of its investigation into the troubled plant.”

Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, told the Chronicle, “The workers in the plant, the public and certainly the victims and their families really deserve to know everything that OSHA found before some of it was traded away behind closed doors.”

OSHA is considering whether to refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. BP denies any wrongdoing and blames the blast on workers. Some workers have been fired and have filed lawsuits, claiming that BP wrongly blamed them for the deadly explosion.

John Miles, regional OSHA administrator, said that management was lax toward safety. He said the violations that led to the blast had existed for years. He also denied that OSHA had failed to properly inspect the plant over the years.

The OSHA report indicates BP Products agreed to:

• Pay $21,361,500 in penalties and abate all hazards for which they were cited.

• Complete a review of the isomerization (ISOM) unit to determine how it can be operated safely, and alert OSHA if and when a decision is made to start up the unit in the future.

• Retain a firm with expertise in process safety management.

• Hire an expert to assess and report on communications within and between management, supervisors and authorized employee representatives and non-management employees, and the impact of such communications on safety practices.

• Submit to OSHA and BP Products’ authorized employee representative, every six months for three years, logs of occupational injuries and illnesses.

• Notify OSHA of any incident or injury at the Texas City facility that results in an employee losing one or more workdays during the same three-year period.

OSHA issued “egregious, willful violations” against BP for operating faulty electrical equipment, failing to correct deficiencies in equipment related to the pressure relief system, failing to compile written process safety information for the ISOM unit, failing to evaluate the safety and health impact of a catastrophic blast near the ISOM unit, and failing to evaluate alarms and instruments for reliability.

Recent BP financial statements note that “BP distributed more than $7.5 billion to shareholders in the first half of 2005 in share buybacks and dividends.”