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Oil Refinery Safety Under Scrutiny Following Explosion


Following a deadly explosion on March 23 at the BP oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, teams of investigators from national and state agencies arrived on the scene to determine what happened. What they learn will help protect not only the safety of workers in the factory, but also the health of the people who live in nearby communities.

The ');">Texas BP refinery is the largest in the United States. Two thousand people work there. It produces 3% of the petroleum products consumed in the U.S. each year. BP Spokesman Bill Stevens says the accident, which resulted in the death of 15 workers, did not shut down the facility.

"This is one unit out of many and all the rest of them remain running," he says. "We will do safety stand downs throughout the plant making sure that everything is up to snuff. It is just that one unit that is down."

Bill Stevens also assured the people living in the shadow of the giant refinery that they have nothing to fear. "There is no danger to the community and there hasn't really been throughout this process," he says. "It has been a terrible ordeal and frankly we are devastated."

Denny Larson coordinates the National Refinery Reform Campaign, a movement to protect citizens from refinery pollution. He disputes BP's claim that the community has nothing to fear. "That accident probably released hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions of pounds of toxic gases straight into the atmosphere that were blown down wind into neighborhoods," he says.

The explosion at the BP Oil Refinery killed 15 workers and injured more than 100. It recalls a much more serious industrial accident nearly 20 years ago - a chemical leak from a U.S.-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that left 3,000 dead and many tens of thousands injured.

The accident in Bhopal led the U.S. Congress to enact laws requiring companies to inform citizens about potential toxic hazards. The acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Air (quality) Enforcement Division, Adam Kushner, says oil refineries are tightly regulated under the Clean Air Act. "There are a number of regulations associated with volatile organic compounds, benzene, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that are emitted from the refinery," he says. "The host of regulations relate to all sorts of aspects of the refinery and its safe operation."

Adam Kushner says over the last four years 56 refineries nationwide - or 60 % of the industry - have signed the National Refinery Initiative, an agreement with three key provisions: One which addresses (unsafe) conditions at the factory. Those are the notorious flarings that Mr. Kushner says many local communities can see from their front porch. "In addition," he says, "we have leak detection and benzene programs that require these refineries to go well beyond what the federal regulations and frequently the state regulations require. What they control are the carcinogens on a fugitive basis, volatile organic compounds and benzene in particular."

The Refinery Reform Campaign's Denny Larson says the problem with the National Refinery Initiative is that it lacks enforcement provisions. "In other words," he says, "there is no speed limit for how much benzene or other toxic gas BP can dump into the air. There is only a screening level, which if triggered would only require more study. There are no fines. There is no mechanism to hammer away at companies like BP that have these accidents and pollute communities and the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency Emergency Unit is at the BP Texas accident site, as are other local and state agencies. Denny Larson with the Refinery Reform Campaign hopes the attention triggered by the fatal explosion will motivate the U.S. Congress to enact tougher laws protecting communities from industrial hazards.

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