On March 25, 2003, a series of explosions rocked the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170. According to news reports, it "sent a plume of thick, black smoke hundreds of feet into the air." The fires and explosions not only toppled buildings, but the CEO of British-based BP, John Browne, as well.
Following the fire, CAM Environmental Services, Pasadena, Texas, conducted a plant-wide assessment of asbestos-containing materials in response to an OSHA citation. More than 45,000 bulk samples were collected, analyzed and managed.
The plant seems to have been plagued by mishaps. An internal investigation after the fire found previous fires, including:
- Three fires, one each in 1986, 1987 and October 1988
- April 1992 explosion and fire resulting in one fatality
- April 1999 fire during maintenance
- January 2003 fire involving hydrogen from a leaking bleeder
BP acquired the plant in 1988 when it acquired Amoco. More than 2,000 people are employed at the 1,200-acre facility, which is the third-largest oil refinery in the United States. The plant produces more than 455,790 barrels a day.
Carolyn W. Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told the Washington Post that "BP implemented a 25 percent cut on fixed costs from 1998 to 2000 that adversely impacted maintenance expenditures and infrastructure at the refinery." She said maintenance spending had declined throughout the 1990s, when the refinery belonged to Amoco Corp.
Paying the Bill
BP has paid many bills since 2005. The Texas City refinery's certification was withdrawn in 2005; the company hoped to get it back in 2009. In October 2007, the company entered into an agreement with the US Department of Justice to pay a $50 million criminal fine and to serve three years' probation. In February 2009, BP reached an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Justice Department to spend more than $161 million on pollution controls, including enhanced asbestos waste management systems. The company also agreed to pay a $12 million civil penalty and spend $6 million on a supplemental project to reduce air pollution in Texas City.
Asbestos and the BP Amoco Refinery in Texas City
For much of the 20th century, asbestos was used as a building material whenever fire or temperature extremes were a danger. Oil refineries such as the BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, therefore, were frequently constructed using materials containing asbestos. In addition to being heat-proof as well as flame-proof, certain types of amphibole asbestos are also especially resistant to reactive chemicals. Floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, work surfaces, even protective garments, therefore, commonly contained the fibrous mineral. Asbestos, however, carried a major downside that was not understood or sometimes deliberately ignored: grave and sometimes fatal diseases were caused by asbestos exposure.
For the most part, amosite was the type of asbestos used. The brown tint of amosite is a result of iron in its chemical makeup; this also makes amosite resistant to corrosive substances, such as those manufactured in plants like BP Amoco refinery in Texas City. This amosite, in the form of asbestos-containing transite, was utilized in chemical plants, labs and oil refineries across the country for many years before it was outlawed in building materials in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite had qualities like cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork. Generally, new items formed from transite were considered safe because the asbestos fibers were trapped in the transite. As this transite grows older and become prone to becoming powdery, however, deadly, microscopic particles can float into the air. In this state, it is said to be friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. Industrial kilns also often were fabricated with friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.
Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad
Asbestos fibers, when friable, are readily released into the air. Inhaling asbestos fibers can result in conditions such as asbestosis or cancer. Mesothelioma, a rare and all too often deadly disease affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos. Pericardial and peritoneal mesothelioma result from ingesting asbestos fibers, which can occur if microscopic particles are released into the air and land on food or in drinks.
In the past twenty years scientists and researchers have learned much information concerning the risks that accompany asbestos exposure; as a result there are stringent guidelines regulating its use. Asbestos use was much more common, however, when facilities like the Texas City BP Amoco refinery were built. Any asbestos remaining from that time may yet pose a health hazard if people are not careful during demolition jobs.
The Time Bomb
Unlike typical workplace injuries, which are readily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, asbestos-related illnesses may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases - breathlessness and pain in the chest or abdomen - may easily be mistaken for the symptoms of other conditions. It is extremely important, therefore, that all who worked at or lived around plants like the BP Amoco Texas City refinery ask their health care professionals for a mesothelioma treatment guide. Such information can help doctors make accurate diagnoses; especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is diagnosed, the higher the chances of surviving or at least of enjoying an improved quality of life. Even though there is no mesothelioma cure, the disease can sometimes be treated with various therapies.
BP.com - BP Sustainability Report, 2007
BP.com - Fatal Accident Investigation Report, Isomerization Unit Explosion Interim Report
CAM Environmental Services - Company Website
Click2Houston.com - 14 Die In Massive Explosion At Texas City Refinery
EPA.gov - BP Texas City Clean Air Act Settlement
Steven Mufson, Washington Post - Cost-Cutting Led to Blast At BP Plant, Probe Finds
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
US Energy Information Administration - U.S. Refineries* Operable Capacity