BP safety record in US under fresh attack

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BP's safety record in the US has come under renewed attack in a damning official report into a fire at its Texas City refinery which happened just four months after an explosion at the same plant killed 15 workers.

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), an independent federal agency whose members are appointed by the President, concluded yesterday that the incident could have been avoided had BP followed simple safety procedures and briefed contractors properly.

The fire occurred after a piece of piping failed catastrophically and without warning, releasing a huge fireball of flammable hydrogen gas. The resulting blaze took two hours to bring under control. Although no one was seriously injured, the fire in July last year caused an estimated $30m worth of damage and led to an urgent recommendation from the CSB for BP to re-examine the safety culture at all its US refineries. The unit where the fire occurred is still closed 15 months later.

Investigators from the CSB discovered that the fire was caused after a steel piping elbow was put back in the wrong place during a routine maintenance shutdown five months earlier. The contractor had inadvertently switched the positions of an alloy steel elbow with a carbon steel elbow which was not able to withstand continuous exposure to high-temperature hydrogen gas. BP had not informed the maintenance contractor that the two apparently identical elbows were not interchangeable. Nor did it have a simple x-ray testing system in place for critical components which would have alerted the contractor to the potentially fatal error. "The test is simple to perform and quickly differentiates between carbon steel and alloy steel," says the CSB report. The board's lead investigator, John Vorderbrueggen, said that had the test device been in use then the accident would not have occurred.

The Texas City refinery is the third largest in the US with 1,600 BP employees and hundreds more contractors on site. The fire resulted in what is known as a "level 3" alert, the second highest emergency classification, because of fears that action might need to be taken to protect the surrounding area.

The incident was one of several at the huge refinery which led to the CBS making its urgent recommendation for BP to overhaul its safety culture and oversight. The board is due to complete its investigation into the devastating Texas City explosion four months earlier which killed 15 employees and injured more than 170.

A US district court judge last week ordered BP's chief executive, Lord Browne of Madingley, to give testimony in a compensation case being brought by the daughter of two of the victims. BP has set aside $1.2bn to cover claims and has already settled nearly 1,000 cases.

BP was caused further embarrassment last week when it emerged that John Manzoni, its head of refining and marketing, had written an e-mail saying he had been obliged to give up a "precious" day of his holiday to visit the refinery after the accident. Mr Manzoni was made to read out the e-mail as part of his deposition to the US court.

Following the Texas City explosion in March last year a senior BP executive was appointed to conduct a root and branch review of the company's safety approach. John Mogford was given the new role of vice-president of safety and operations in May 2005. He has a staff of 45 and another 45 auditors.

In a further drive to improve its performance and image in North America, BP has appointed a new president for its US operations, Bob Malone, hired a retired US federal judge as ombudsman and created an independent American advisory panel.

The new safety-first approach running through was graphically illustrated last month when it announced that production from the giant Thunder Horse field in the Gulf of Mexico would be delayed for two years because of metallurgical failures on undersea parts of the platform.

BP said it welcomed the CSB report and would study its findings. But a spokeswoman pointed out that the two main recommendations - for improved oversight of contractors and testing of critical components - had already been implemented after its own investigation into the fire.