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Five Years Later - BP settlement money helps with safety training

March 24, 2010, 9:52 am

Originally posted by Monica Hatcher - Houston Chronicle - March 23, 2010

It's been five years since Eva Rowe's parents, James and Linda Rowe, and 13 others were killed in the explosion at BP's Texas City refinery.

After a ceremony and conference Tuesday marking the anniversary of the disaster, Rowe said she no longer thinks daily about the tragedy that took her parents' lives and that a large part of the pain had faded, though she quietly wept during parts of the event.

Beaumont lawyer Brent Coon, who represented Rowe and numerous others who suffered losses in the blast, hosted the event at his firm's downtown Houston office. Rowe expressed her gratitude that numerous endowments — established with $44 million included in her settlement with the British oil company — were improving safety in the refining industry.

“It brings a little bit of peace,” said Rowe, now 25, and a mother-to-be.

Rowe's settlement — the total amount of which remains confidential, as do other plaintiffs' settlements — secured funds for the hefty charity program and made public more than 7 million pages of court documents that helped bring to light safety lapses that led to the blast.

BP was invited to the event, Coon said, but did not send a representative.

Keith Casey, manager of the Texas City refinery, issued a statement noting that workers there observed a moment of silence at 1:20 p.m., the moment of the blast on March 23, 2005.

“This anniversary is a time for reflection and remembrance, but not a single day goes by where we don't think about the tragic events of the day and rededicate ourselves to being an industry leader in process safety,” Casey said.

State District Judge Susan Criss, who oversaw the Rowe case and others and attended the downtown event, also gave credit to BP for agreeing to the settlement terms in Rowe's case, which Criss said allowed the industry to learn from BP's mistake and help make workplaces safer.

The session Tuesday included remembrances of the victims, who died when faulty alarm equipment and gauges failed to alert plant workers to a dangerous overflow of flammable material that ignited.

The session Tuesday included remembrances of the victims, who died when faulty alarm equipment and gauges failed to alert plant workers to a dangerous overflow of flammable material that ignited.

And representatives from organizations that received charitable funds expressed pride in what they said has emerged as the tragedy's positive legacy, thanks to settlement proceeds they received:

• • Texas A&M has educated more engineers in process safety and has launched new research into fires, explosives and fire suppression, said Dr. Sam Mannan, of the university's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center. It got $12.5 million and $2 million for a matching grant program.

• • The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where many of the injured were taken after the explosion, has trained 30 doctors from around the world in burn and trauma treatment, and has developed new medicines, said Dr. David Herndon of UTMB, which also got $12.5 million and $2 million for a matching grant program.

• • College of the Mainland, a community college in Texas City, has established the Gulf Coast Safety Institute, along with a new degree program in occupational safety and health technology, said Monica O'Neal, who directs the college's foundation. The college got $5 million and $2 million for a matching grant program.

• • And seniors at Hornbeck High School, in Rowe's Louisiana hometown, are benefiting from $1 million in college scholarships.

St. Jude's Hospital also received $1 million.

Criss credited Rowe with courage, vision and foresight for using the money to create the endowments, but in also making sure “the world knew what happened.”

“The easiest thing in the world would have been for Ms. Rowe to have taken the money — a large sum of money — and move on,” Criss said, noting how unusual it was to work out a deal where all case evidence would be released in the public domain.

“There is no greater tribute that could have been paid to the 15 and to the many others that were hurt than that,” Criss said.

The U.S. Chemical Statement and Hazard Investigation Board in 2007 found BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the Texas City explosion.

BP says it has spent $1  billion in upgrading and modernizing the Texas City refinery and is continuing to invest in plant improvements.

In October, however, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the company had not gone far enough in complying with safety upgrades required in a separate settlement with the government.

The agency is seeking $87 million in new fines. BP is contesting the decision.


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