John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Oct. 3, 2013, 11:54am

GALVESTON - Jurors in a trial focusing on an alleged 2010 toxic release at BP's former refinery in Texas City listened to a chemical engineer from Missouri on Oct. 2.

Dr. Joseph D. Smith, who teaches chemical and nuclear engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., testified for the petrochemical company, discussing combustion in relation to the emission that allegedly sickened local residents and workers during a six-week period that began April 6, 2010, when the hydrogen compressor in the refinery's ultracracker unit went offline.

The fourth week of the so-called "test" trial ensued with lead plaintiffs' attorney Tony Buzbee of The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston calling on his last batch of witnesses before resting on Oct. 1.

Claiming it was trying "to be a good neighbor" to the citizens of Texas City and surrounding areas, BP countered Buzbee's charges that it prioritizes profits over people.

The trial is centered on four selected claimants out of a reported 50,000 .

Its outcome will set the precedent for how the other cases would proceed, according to Galveston County 56th District Court Judge Lonnie Cox, who is hearing arguments from the residents and the petrochemical company.

BP's legal team, headed by Cleveland, Ohio-based attorney Damond R. Mace, began its case later the same day and put two witnesses on the stand.

Dr. Smith, the first to speak among the defendant's handpicked experts, stated that he visited the refinery site and looked at the ultracracker unit. The plethora of suits claim the ultracracker failed and set off a chemical leak of about 540,000 pounds of chemicals and compounds — including at least 17,000 pounds of benzene, according to court documents.

In the midst of his approximately two-hour long testimony, Dr. Smith viewed videos from the cameras installed in the vicinity of the unit, but said the position of the cameras and the position of the sun affected the appearance of the emitting flame. He said it met the industry standard destruction efficiency with a nearly 100 per cent rating.

"It is a pattern that repeat(ed) itself every day," Smith said.

The longtime educator, whose résumé includes employment with Dow Chemical Co. and John Zink Hamworthy Combustion, added there was data in support of the flare's existence.

"This is a refinery," he said after having recalled seeing and feeling something similar on a flight he took in South America.

"(It) has to operate in a safe environment otherwise it would have problems."

Louis Fowler from the URS Corp. followed Dr. Smith on the stand.

Fowler talked thoroughly about the air monitoring systems in and around the facility owned by BP at the time, but now owned by Marathon.

The systems did not detect any dangerous chemical levels, he said.

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