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BP Blast Victims at Texas Refinery Ask Judge to Revisit Criminal Plea Deal

Victims of a 2005 explosion at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery asked a U.S. judge to revisit a plea deal that settled the company’s criminal liability over the blast that killed 15 and injured hundreds.

Houston lawyer Brent Coon, a lead attorney in civil litigation that cost BP $2.1 billion in settlements with blast victims, asked U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston in a letter today to reopen BP’s plea deal, which fined the company $50 million for violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Last year, Rosenthal accepted BP’s guilty plea to one violation of air pollution laws. Victims claimed the plea agreement, which also required BP to complete three years of probation, was too lenient. They asked Rosenthal today to review the plea, citing concerns over additional safety violations and the company’s involvement with the Deepwater Horizon Rig that burned and sank last month in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the plea, “BP has been cited for numerous other knowing violations in their refineries and is now involved in the largest environmental catastrophe we have ever seen,” Coon said in the letter. The Gulf oil spill “is yet another reason to revoke their probation,” he said.

The Texas City blast occurred when a refinery unit that boosts octane in gasoline overflowed and ignited in a fireball that shook windows five miles away.

In addition to the fine, BP agreed, as part of the probation, to complete safety repairs at the site and not violate air pollution laws again.

BP spokesmen Daren Beaudo and Scott Dean didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment today.

Plea’s Terms

Victims have been trying to derail the plea deal since it was announced in October 2007. While they sought a larger fine or appointment of a safety monitor to insure BP completed required safety improvements at the plant, the judge couldn’t alter the plea’s terms.

“You understand I cannot rewrite the plea,” Rosenthal told victims’ lawyers at a 2008 hearing. “All I can do is accept or reject this plea. I wish I had the power to decree” that BP would make the plant safe, she said. “My role is much more limited,” she said.

BP paid an initial fine of $21 million to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to resolve more than 300 safety violations at the refinery. As part of that agreement, BP agreed to repair the facility by last September to meet safe operating standards.

Second OSHA Fine

In October, OSHA found that BP had failed to remedy all safety violations at the Texas City plant by that deadline and fined the company an additional $87 million.

“For that reason alone, the court should revoke the plea and set aside the probation,” Coon told Rosenthal in the letter.

BP, which contested the latest OSHA fine, said it is complying with the settlement agreement. Beaudo said last year that the company has spent in excess of $1 billion and 55 million man-hours repairing the Texas City refinery.

Daniel Dooher, a senior trial attorney in the Justice Department’s environmental crimes division, supported BP’s plea deal in 2008 and told Rosenthal then that BP didn’t require a court safety monitor at Texas City to insure the company’s compliance. He said OSHA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality were already watching BP.

‘Toe the Line’

“We’ve got two agencies that are making BP toe the line,” Dooher said at a February 2008 hearing in federal court in Houston.

“If they tell us” BP is in violation, “we’ll be here in a heartbeat” to inform the court, Dooher told Rosenthal. “And BP doesn’t decide whether it is in compliance or not. OSHA decides that.”

Coon said he sent several inquiries to the Justice Department about asking Rosenthal to revisit BP’s plea deal since the OSHA fine in October. Coon said he sent his latest message last week, after the Deepwater Horizon, which was under hire to BP in the Gulf of Mexico, burned, killing 11 and injuring 17.

Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on today’s letter to Rosenthal.

Three other workers have died in separate accidents at BP’s Texas City refinery since the 2005 explosion, Coon said today. The most recent fatality occurred while Rosenthal was considering whether to accept BP’s plea.

The case is U.S. v. BP Products North America Inc., 07-cr-00434, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Houston).

To contact the reporters on this story: Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston at laurel@calkins.us.com; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, at mcfisk@bloomberg.net.

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