BP’s Toll on Texas


Forget the Gulf oil spill for a moment (if that’s possible). If you want to understand the depth of BP’s venality—and the uselessness of state regulators—go back two weeks before the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon. On April 6, an enormous, invisible cloud of toxic chemicals began pouring out of BP’s Texas City refinery. An estimated 538,000 pounds of benzene, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide poisoned the Texas sky the next 40 days and 40 nights. It was one of the worst toxic releases in Texas in a decade.

The emissions, amazingly, weren’t discovered for weeks. How is this possible? The answer, it seems, is that Texas doesn’t require polluters like BP to test what’s coming out of their stacks. Instead the state requires only fence-line monitors. In April, those monitors failed to detect a half-million-pound release of dangerous chemicals.

Only when the company took a closer look did it discover the problem. When state regulators found out, they evidently kept it to themselves. The BP air spill might have been lost to history if not for a Galveston Daily News story that caught the attention of ProPublica and Frontline, which launched a three-part investigation of BP’s Texas City refinery.

As the two news organizations discovered, BP’s promises to change after a 2005 refinery explosion killed 15 workers in Texas City were hollow. Since then, another four workers have died at the Texas City refinery in electrocutions, heavy-machinery accidents and explosions. Last year, OSHA fined BP $87 million—the largest in history—for failing to fix safety deficiencies. With the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon, BP’s death toll in Texas and Louisiana alone since 2005 is at least 30 workers.

Outside of some nutty Republicans like Texas Congressman Joe Barton, BP has few defenders. But political leaders, President Barack Obama included, have yet to recognize the depth of this company’s irresponsibility: the worker deaths, the enormous air spill, the ecological and economic disaster in the Gulf. Since the Supreme Court considers corporations to have personhood, maybe it’s time we see BP for what it is: an unreformed criminal.

“Record OSHA fines, all these hearings, going to criminal court, all these civil cases—it’s had zero impact,” said one former BP employee. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal probe  into the Gulf disaster. That’s promising, but given the death and destruction BP has brought to the state it’s time the Texas Attorney General launches his own criminal investigation.