Judge must decide to accept, reject BP plea agreement

Marilyn Tennissen Feb. 7, 2008, 4:40am

BP has pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with the March 23, 2005, explosion that killed 15 and injured hundreds at its Texas City refinery. Now U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal has to decide if she will accept the company's plea agreement.

On Feb. 4, plant manager Keith Casey pleaded guilty to felony environmental crime on behalf of the company. The deal includes a $50 million fine � the highest fine ever assessed under the Clean Air Act -- and three years' probation.

The Clean Air Act calculates criminal fines with a mathematical formula that considers how much money a company may have saved by deferring repairs and failing to implement safety measures as well as profits. The formula does not account for fatalities.

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, Casey told the judge "Our guilty plea is an admission that we failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law. The result was a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided."

But victims of the blast came before Rosenthal in Houston, trying to persuade her not to accept the deal made between the U.S. Department of Justice and BP's division that oversees its U.S. refineries.

The blast happened when a tower in a unit that boosted octane in gasoline overfilled with hydrocarbons, which went into a blowdown stack that spewed liquid and vapors into the air. Those vapors ignited, causing the explosion.

The unit was undergoing a startup when it exploded, and the company admits that several procedures required under the law for ensuring mechanical integrity and safety were ignored or had not been established.

The 15 people who died were in a trailer 121 feet away from unit.BP had a policy that trailers be at least 350 feet away from processing units. The company admits it failed to inform the workers that the unit was going to be restarted.

The company is spending $1 billion to overhaul the plant, including replacement of all blowdown stacks with flares that burn off vapors.

BP also has spent $1.6 billion settling more than half of about 4,000 civil claims.

Victims and their attorneys, including Beaumont's Brent Coon, argue that the company's admission of guilt and the fine offer little solace for the victims and families.

One of Coon's clients, Eva Rowe, won an undisclosed settlement from BP after her parents were killed in the explosion.

Rowe was among those who rallied outside the Houston courthouse prior to testifying before Rosenthal.

"I think this agreement stinks," Rowe is quoted by the Chronicle,"If the purpose of punishment is to give incentive to the wrongdoer to change their ways and do the right thing, this agreement utterly fails.Fifty million is less than one month's worth of profit for this one BP plant."

Coon said fines are insufficient and that it is wrong that "no one's going to jail for those 15 counts of murder," the Chronicle reported.

As part of the deal, BP also paid millions to area schools and hospitals.

The Houston Chronicle reported in January that Rowe's undisclosed settlement included a pledge to contribute $5 million to an industrial safety program at College of the Mainland in Texas City and $30 million to charitable foundations.

Of that, her alma mater in the Louisiana town of Hornbeck will receive $1 million in scholarships. Over the next 10 years, $100,000 will be deposited each year in scholarships for graduates of Hornbeck High School named for Rowe's parents.

The Chronicle reported that school counselors would begin handing out applications in February and that school officials declined to sit on the committee that will pick recipients.

Instead, Rowe, her brother and one of Coon's executive assistants will read the applications.

Rosenthal has not set a date for a hearing to announce her decision on the plea.

Case No. 4:07-cr-00434

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