Federal environmental regulators have launched an investigation into benzene problems at BP’s Texas City oil refinery, a facility that has already racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in government fines and court judgments for disregarding environmental regulations and safety failures that have resulted in injuries and deaths.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was looking into what it calls a “catastrophic” release of benzene, a known carcinogen, for 41 days in April and May, 2010. The release occurred after a hydrogen compressor broke down on April 6, and put half a million pounds of total pollutants into the air, 17,000 pounds of which was benzene, according to BP.
BP already faces a $10 billion toxic tort class action lawsuit over the benzene release that was filed by more than 2,200 workers at the refinery and residents from the surrounding area. The lawsuit was filed in August in U.S. District Court in the Galveston Division for the Southern District of Texas. The plaintiffs allege that they suffered serious injuries and illnesses from benzene exposure.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office has also promised to bring a claim against the company.
“By joining the investigation, EPA will help ensure disclosure of all information by BP,” said Al Armendariz, EPA Regional Administrator for Region 6, in an EPA press release. “It is important the EPA, state officials and public know what happened at the plant, and that BP is held accountable to prevent incidents like these from happening in the future.”
BP’s Texas City Refinery is the third-largest oil refinery in the United States, and has been the subject of several major safety incidents. As recently as September, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration hit BP with an $87.4 million fine for not complying with a safety agreement made after a March 23, 2005 explosion and fire that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others.
In February 2009, BP Products North America agreed to pay $180 million to resolve a separate environmental lawsuit over benzene emissions at the refinery. That case involved violations of a 2001 consent decree and Clean Air regulations which were identified during inspections by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) following the March 2005 blast.
Under the terms of that settlement, BP agreed to spend $161 million to address their Clean Air Act violations by setting up better pollution controls, enhanced maintenance and monitoring devices and improving their internal management practices. Another $6 million was designated to fund a project to reduce air pollution in Texas City and $12 million was paid as a penalty.
Benzene is an industrial chemical that has been associated with the development of several fatal forms of cancer, leukemia and other conditions, such as Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.