BP Wins Toxic Refinery-Emissions Test Trial in Texas

BP Wins Toxic Refinery-Emissions Test Trial in Texas Court
The main area of the BP Plc refinery stands in Texas City. Photographer: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg

BP Plc isn’t liable for pollution-related injuries claimed by the first of almost 48,000 people who sued over tons of cancer-causing gases spewed by a Texas refinery in 2010, a jury said.

Neighbors of the Texas City plant were seeking billions of dollars in punitive damages. The jury in Galveston, Texas, today found BP negligent, while rejecting the residents’ claims that the fumes caused any injuries.

The residents claimed London-based BP intentionally vented more than 500,000 pounds of toxic chemicals to a refinery flare that the company knew was incapable of destroying them. BP said the flare destroyed virtually all of the toxic chemicals released by a malfunctioning production unit during the 45-day emission incident in 2010.

“Today’s verdict affirms BP’s view that no one suffered any injury as a result of the flaring of the BP Ultracracker flare during April and May 2010,” Geoff Morrell, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. “Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this case and this important jury verdict, the company will immediately begin to prepare for any additional proceedings involving other plaintiffs.”

Tony Buzbee, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was surprised by the verdict.

‘First One’

“But I respect juries,” he said in an interview. “This was only the first one. We learned some things. We will gear up and try another one in a couple of months.”

Ground-level concentrations of harmful chemicals detected by air-quality monitors in the community and on BP’s property were “far, far, far below” levels needed to cause health effects, Damond Mace, the company’s lawyer, told the jury Oct 7.

“The critical question is what, if anything, made it down to ground level where these people were,” Mace said during closing arguments. “But even if we look at what came out of the top of the stack,” the amounts of chemicals released by BP during the incident “did not exceed their permit,” he said.

Kenneth Tekell, another of BP’s lawyers, told jurors the three plaintiffs had relatively minor injuries and urged the panel to exonerate BP of harming anyone.

“If the pieces don’t fit, you must acquit, and the pieces don’t fit in this puzzle to convict BP,” Tekell said during closing arguments.

Key Equipment

Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery said BP exposed them to the chemicals for weeks without warning to avoid idling the refinery when a key piece of equipment malfunctioned. Buzbee told the jury BP would have lost more than $20 million had it shut the unit down during repairs.

Buzbee asked jurors to make an example of BP with a multibillion-dollar damages award that would force the company to clean up practices and policies at its remaining U.S. refineries. BP sold the Texas City facility to Marathon Petroleum Corp. in a deal announced last year.

“This ain’t an accident, it’s a corporate policy,” Buzbee told jurors. BP had 193 emissions incidents -- 73 of them classified by state regulators as excessive -- and would continue to pollute unless confronted with a damages award that made it “too expensive for them to ever do it again,” he told the jury.

For the jury of eight women and four men, it all came down to “whether or not anyone was harmed” by the emissions, according to juror Robert Pierce, 67, chief of the Port of Galveston police department.

‘All Sick’

“These people were all sick and would’ve probably needed medical treatment anyway,” Pierce said in an interview after the verdict. “There was no direct relationship” between their ailments and the refinery incident, he said.

All 12 jurors found BP had negligently caused the toxic-gas release “because they knew what was going to happen, and they went ahead and did it anyway,” Pierce said. The lack of provable injuries to the three plaintiffs at trial prevented jurors from finding BP grossly negligent, which would have triggered punitive damages, he said.

Stephanie Beall, a 47-year-old Galveston pharmacist, said the question of whether BP’s actions created a public nuisance “was one of the tougher” ones the jury discussed in 2 1/2 days of deliberations. Jurors weren’t aware they were trying test cases until after they rendered their verdict, she said.

“We had no inclination that our decision would impact 47,000 cases,” Beall said in an interview outside of court.

Oil Spill

The Texas City emissions incident overlapped the start of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began when a rig exploded while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast. BP, Europe’s second-biggest oil company, has spent more than $26 billion over the spill, including cleanup and claims, BP said on its website.

BP’s Texas plant was also the scene of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 petrochemical workers and resulted in payments of $2.1 billion to more than 3,000 local residents and businesses harmed by the blast.

The company agreed in 2011 to pay Texas $50 million to settle air-pollution violations at the plant from 2005 through 2011, which included the release of about 500,000 pounds of harmful chemicals during the 2010 flaring incident.

The case is In re MDL Litigation Regarding Texas City Refinery Ultracracker Emission Event Litigation, 10-UC-0001, Texas 56th Judicial District Court (Galveston).

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