By BEN LEFEBVRE
A Texas jury will begin hearing arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit in which neighbors of a former BP refinery allege the oil giant's release of toxic gases exposed residents to potential health dangers.
The suit is the latest BP has faced over the refinery it used to own in Texas City, where a 2005 explosion killed 15 workers, injured scores of others and cost the oil company $2.1 billion in legal settlements.
The air emissions lawsuit, which is unrelated to the 2005 blast, could potentially put BP on the hook for an additional $10 billion in punitive damages, according to court documents. BP has said in regulatory filings that the refinery emitted toxic gases, but that the releases weren't large enough to sicken neighbors.
The refinery, among the largest in the US, has been a mixed blessing for the roughly 45,000 people living in Texas City, an industrial area along the Gulf of Mexico about 45 minutes southeast of Houston. The 475,000 bpd plant employs thousands of people but has been prone to accidents, including an April 2011 power outage that caused a refinery fire and forced residents to shelter in place.
BP sold the refinery and affiliated assets to Marathon Petroleum in February 2013, in a deal valued at $2.4 billion.
People living in the area aren't generally opposed to the refinery, but have protested what they saw as BP's lax safety standards, said Neil Carman, the Sierra Club's clean-air program director for Texas.
"It's been a huge mess for a long time," Mr. Carman said. "People there would like it to be a cleaner refinery."
BP, which has said it invested heavily to improve operations, has paid state and federal regulators tens of millions of dollars in fines and settlements stemming from previous environmental and safety issues at the refinery. In November 2011, BP agreed to pay the Texas government $50 million in a settlement related to pollution emissions at the plant after the 2005 explosion.
In the latest case, residents allege that the refinery emitted 500,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, benzene and other air pollutants in April and May of 2010, lowering their property values and putting their health in danger.
"BP intentionally spewed thousands of pounds of carcinogens into the atmosphere, along with other chemicals that formed a 'toxic soup," the plaintiffs' lead lawyer, Anthony Buzbee, said in a court document.
Mr. Buzbee has tussled unsuccessfully with BP before over emissions from the Texas City refinery. In 2009, a jury ordered BP to pay $100 million to plaintiffs Mr. Buzbee represented who claimed to have been subjected to health risks by breathing toxic air from the plant. A judge later overturned the decision, saying the plaintiffs didn't prove BP was grossly negligent.
BP has previously said in information filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that a hydrogen compressor damaged by fire started emitting toxic materials in April 2010. BP continued operating the damaged equipment while it made repairs, sending emissions into the air for the next 40 days.
But BP said health problems cited by plaintiffs could be attributed to any number of factors outside the refinery.
"Neither the community air monitoring network nor the BP fence line monitors showed elevated readings during April and May 2010, and we do not believe that any negative health impacts resulted from flaring at BP's Texas City refinery during this period," BP spokesman Scott Dean said.
Dow Jones Newswires