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Texas sues BP over huge toxic release at Texas City refinery

BP's refinery in Texas City. A fire in April caused what the Texas attorney general on Wednesday called the 'unlawful' release of toxic chemicals. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The Texas attorney general has charged BP with illegally emitting hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals at one of its refineries in Texas City, a massive release of dangerous pollutants that lasted more than a month.

A joint investigation by ProPublica and Frontline found that, just two weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf, a key piece of equipment at BP’s Texas City refinery failed, allowing the release of toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and benzene, a carcinogen. Rather than halt operations to conduct repairs, BP continued production at the refinery, resulting in the release of 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals over the span of almost 40 days.

The Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, noted on Wednesday that the lawsuit against BP was the second enforcement action his office has taken against the company since June 2009. In the first case, which is ongoing, the state charged BP with poor operational practices that led to the harmful release of pollutants in a 2005 explosion at the same Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers and injured 170. Seven of the violations contained in the suit filed on Wednesday involve the same operational compressor unit faulted for the 2005 release.

“Rather than shut down associated units while compressor repairs were made, BP chose to keep operating those other units, which led to unlawful release of contaminants to the air for almost 40 days,” said a statement issued by the Texas attorney general’s office announcing the lawsuit. “The state’s investigation shows that BP’s failure to properly maintain its equipment caused the malfunction and could have been prevented.”

BP officials have promised to cooperate with the attorney general’s office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to resolve the matter. Workers at the refinery and area residents have also filed suit against the company, claiming the release harmed their health. In response to Frontline and ProPublica’s initial reporting on the incident, BP released a statement saying it had not detected “an exceedance of regulatory exposure limits to workers or the community at any time during the flaring.”

The state is seeking as much as $25,000 in civil fines and damages against BP for each day that each contaminant spewed into the atmosphere around the refinery. In the lawsuit, the attorney general’s office identified six toxic chemicals known to have been emitted into the air and said the release lasted about 40 days. At that rate, BP could be subject to, at most, about $6 million in fines — a meager sum given the multinational company’s annual revenue of over $246 billion.

But as the Houston Chronicle noted, what may be considerably more worrisome to BP is the possibility that the Texas lawsuit might jeopardize the company’s federal probation for a criminal conviction related to the deadly explosion at the refinery in 2005. “That has got to be BP’s biggest worry right now,” James Nebout, a Houston trial attorney who has sued BP in the past, told the Chronicle.

In July, Need to Know spoke with ProPublica managing editor Stephen Engelberg about the incident at the Texas City refinery. Engelberg said the toxic release, coupled with the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April, may undercut claims by BP officials that the company has invested considerably in improving the safety of its operations. “This incident happened at the very same time as the Gulf, under many of the same circumstances,” Engelberg said. “So it does give me a lot of pause about whether or not to credit what they’re saying.”

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