BP Texas Refinery Neighbors Seek Billions at Toxin Trial

BP Plc faces the first of almost 48,000 toxic exposure claims from neighbors of a Texas refinery who say they’ll give the billions of dollars in punitive damages they’re seeking to charity if they win at trial.

The residents claim BP intentionally exposed them to cancer-causing gases for five weeks in 2010 without any warning. The four plaintiffs in the state court trial that started today in Galveston seek as much as $200,000 each in actual damages, plus $10 billion in punitive damages they said in court papers would be donated.

BP knowingly vented at least 500,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, including benzene, from a faulty refinery unit to a flare the company knew was incapable of destroying the toxins, Tony Buzbee, the residents’ lead attorney, said in a phone interview. He claims BP would have lost more than $20 million if it had shut the unit down during repairs.

“BP decided there was just too much money to be made at the time, so they decided to flare the emissions and take the consequences,” Buzbee said. He plans to ask jurors to send BP a message that “the wanton poisoning of an entire community is not an acceptable business practice,” he said.

London-based BP denies anyone was injured by emissions from the refinery, which was later sold.

“Neither the community air-monitoring network nor the BP fence-line monitors showed elevated readings during April and May 2010,” Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, said by e-mail before the trial. “We do not believe that any negative health impacts resulted from flaring at BP’s Texas City refinery during this period.”

Oil Spill

The Texas City emissions incident overlapped with the beginning of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which was caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast. BP has paid more than $30 billion in spill cleanup costs, fines and damages and still faces thousands of spill-related injury and damage claims in federal court in New Orleans.

The large number of local residents suing the company over the emissions case gives the plaintiffs in this trial a “home court” advantage, said David Berg, a Houston trial attorney who isn’t involved in the BP litigation.

“I don’t see how the jury can be anything but friendly to the plaintiffs,” Berg said in a phone interview. “But BP has such a terrible reputation for recklessness and disregard for safety, you could probably try this case in England and win.”

Jury Pool

About 250 jurors were summoned to the Galveston courthouse today, where they answered a six-page questionnaire intended to weed out people with strong opinions about BP. Craig Eiland, a former state legislator who represents a group of police officers and firefighters in the case, said several prospective jurors were dismissed because they are plaintiffs whose claims will be tried in later stages of the litigation.

Potential jurors were asked if they “believe even one molecule of a known dangerous chemical will usually cause long-term health problems” and whether they think living near local refineries “usually causes” long-term health issues, according to a copy of the questionnaire provided by a lawyer in the case. They were also asked if they believe “large refineries would knowingly violate their own safety standards if they thought they could get away with it” and whether they listen to certain conservative talk-radio hosts.

This trial will test claims of four individuals who lived or worked in the immediate vicinity of the plant, according to court records. Two other plaintiffs were dropped from the trial before jury selection began.

BP Products North America has a lengthy litigation history with the Texas City refinery, which the company sold to Marathon Petroleum Corp. in a transaction announced last October.

2005 Explosion

More than 3,000 people sued BP after a 2005 explosion at the site killed 15 workers and injured hundreds. BP ultimately paid $2.1 billion to settle those claims.

About 100 area residents sued BP separately over health complaints following the leak of an unidentified gas that lasted about an hour at the Texas City plant in 2007. A federal jury in Galveston awarded more than $100 million for the first 10 of these emission claims, almost all of it punitive damages. The trial judge threw out that 2009 award, and the verdicts were overturned on appeal.

Forty-Day Event

“This case is different from that one,” Buzbee said. “This was a 40-day event that’s documented -- even BP admits it happened -- involving known carcinogens.” The company was slow to tell the community or regulators of the leak and underreported the volume of toxins released, he said.

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

BP disputes the claim that enough chemicals were released to harm residents.

“Plaintiffs’ own experts admit” that toxin concentrations “did not exceed any health-based government standards,” Katherine Mackillop, a BP lawyer, said in court papers. “All of the plaintiffs’ complaints are transient, minor complaints commonly experienced by the general public every day -- like sore throats, headaches, coughing, irritated eyes and the like.”

Opening statements are set to begin Sept. 11, with the trial estimated to last six weeks.

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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