Air expert claims BP knew risks of blow-down stack use

By John Suayan, Galveston Bureau | Jun 19, 2008

Brent Coon

GALVESTON – The third trial arising from the March 2005 explosion at a BP facility in Texas City enters its fourth week with a California-based air quality expert on the stand.

The trial involves 10 plaintiffs allegedly injured in the blast.

Jim Tarr, owner of Stone Lines Environmental Corporation, spent Wednesday, June 18, in Galveston County District Court answering questions regarding his work on the blasts and his 30-year career in environmental safety, which includes a stint with the state's air control agency in the 1970s.

Lawyers for the oil major labeled Tarr, who was brought in by the plaintiffs' attorneys, as someone paid to criticize their client, and alleged he was making $300 per hour.

They grilled him about the amount of time he reportedly spent on completing an investigatory report after being tabbed for consultation in March.

BP claimed Tarr reportedly registered 28.5 hours into the report, arguing the expert witness conducted research even after its submission.

"The problem with your analogy is that my work on this matter with respect to my opinions did not stop on the day I issued the report," said Tarr to the BP attorneys. "My work continued, and I have extended a very large number of hours working on matters testified in this court."

The defense focused on Tarr's inexperience with the Texas air quality entity. It presented jurors a PowerPoint in which Tarr was shown not to meet certain criteria including but not limited to:

  • At least 12 years reviewing NSR permits in the state;
  • Noted development of guidelines permitting BACT utilization in the state; and
  • Noted development of Section 112 Air Toxics Changes as Result of 1990 Federal Clean Air Act.

    In response, the plaintiffs' attorneys, including Lance Lubel and Beaumont's Brent Coon, contended their counterparts did not spend any time with Tarr or even provided him documentation that refutes his opinions.

    An argument over a piece of equipment at the Texas City plant that contributed to the incident took place. It was reported BP continuously failed to notify state regulators about the item.

    An article in the Houston Chronicle reported that in earlier testimony, Tarr said that BP failed to report the refinery's use of a blowdown drum and stack to release flammable and toxic hydrocarbons into the air, and said that the failure that led to the explosion was intentional.

    The explosion occurred after the blowdown stack overfilled and spewed flammable hydrocarbons out the top, which then settled to ground level and ignited. The preferred disposal method is to burn such gases off with flares rather than vent them through blowdown stacks.

    Tarr said BP knew the blowdown system existed, failed to include it in permit applications and later failed to correct permit applications that omitted it, the Chronicle reported from Tarr's testimony on Tuesday.

    His testimony countered previous statements by Ruben Herrera, a BP engineer who previously worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and reviewed permits for BP.

    Meanwhile, a BP lawyer stated close to 90 cases against the petroleum company have been settled. That leaves at least 150 on Judge Susan Criss' docket.

    Negotiations between the plaintiffs and BP are in progress as the current trial is being heard in 212th District Court.

    Although the oil major admits culpability in the incident, it believes the event cannot be fully responsible for the reported injuries.

    Fifteen people were killed and more than 170 were injured as a result of the blasts.

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