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
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
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
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
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